C’est magnifique — `Irma La Douce’ gets intimate

Greg MacKellan and has cast and crew for Irma LaDouce are finding out what the expression “the show must go on” really means.

A mere week before the first preview performances of the 1950s musical, leading man Steve Rhyne (pictured right with Bill Fahrner (center) and Alison Ewing (left), staring as Nestor Le Fripe, a law student who falls in love with the titular lovable streetwalker, injured his knee fairly severely and would not be able to perform – at least for previews and opening weekend.

MacKellan, co-founding artistic director of 42nd Street Moon and director of Irma, says he has never experienced a situation like this in the 15 years of his company’s existence.

“It’s such a good show, and we’ve been wanting to do it for such a long time,” MacKellan says, “and Steve is so good in the part. We’re working it out, but I’m anxious for Steve to get back.”

Kyle Payne, who was in the ensemble playing multiple roles (and a veteran of Oh, My Godmother!), has stepped into Rhyne’s role, and another member of the ensemble, is filling in for Payne. That leaves the cast a man short with no time to fill the role before performances begin.

“It’s a big upheaval,” MacKellan says, “but Kyle is pretty amazing. Three days after he started, he was off book for Act 1. It’s been a huge thing for the cast to adjust to, but they’ve been rocks.”

All the angst is unfortunate, especially in view of the fact that “Irma” has been a long time coming.

Most people know the name Irma LaDouce from the 1963 Billy Wilder-directed film starring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon. But that film bears only a surface resemblance to the stage musical created by composer Marguerite Monnot (who wrote songs for Edith Piaf) and book and lyrics writer Alexandre Breffort.

“The essentials of the plot are the same,” MacKellan says, “but the songs, cut from the movie, are the best parts of the show. The stage version isn’t as crass as the movie, in fact the musical isn’t crass at all. It’s very sweetly done – like an adult fairy tale, very romantic and with a sense of joie de vivre. The movie doesn’t have that at all.”

A sensation in Paris in the mid-’50s, Irma moved to London in 1958 with new book and lyrics by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman. The show was a hit in English as well and then headed to Broadway in 1960, where it won a Tony Award for leading lady Elizabeth Seal.

MacKellan has been trying to get the rights to Irma for years, but they have been unavailable since the last major production – for the San Francisco Civic Light Opera in 1978, a production that starred Priscilla Lopez (A Chorus Line) and Larry Kert (West Side Story).

“It was something about the French authors and their resentment of the English translation,” MacKellan says. “I’m not sure what it was all about, but the English version changed a lot of things, and then the movie didn’t even use the songs, except a couple of them and then only as background. But about 10 or 11 years ago, all the English authors had died, and something about the contract sent everything back to the French authors to decide what was to be done. Last fall, a new attorney took over the estate, and eventually we got a call asking us if we wanted to do it.”

Though MacKellan and company are performing the Broadway version of “Irma,” which is the only version licensed in this country, he says he’s trying to make the show more the way it was in England.

“With each incarnation, the show has gotten a little bit bigger,” MacKellan says. “The original French production was small, rather dark and very intimate. It became something else in England then in New York, it was a big Broadway show where you listen to the overture and get excited. But it’s not that kind of show. For obvious reasons – our theater, our stage – our production will be more intimate.”

Irma is also notable, in 42nd Street Moon terms, because it’s the third production in the company’s evolution from presenting concert versions of musicals – with scripts in hand – to presenting more fully produced versions of shows.

“We ascribed to the notion that people should now it’s a concert for a long, long time,” MacKellan says. “But it was time to refresh the idea of what we’re doing, to reconnect with what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

A fuller production – no scripts, pieces of sets, props – can be challenging in the tight confines of the Eureka Theatre with precious little backstage space.

“We’re finding our way into this new way of doing things, but people seem to really enjoy it,” MacKellan says. “The binders are gone for good.”

Though 42nd Street Moon has been known for dusting off some truly dusty old shows that have been lost, forgotten or in dire need of being pieced back together, the company’s fresh approach could include some newer shows.

“(Co-artistic director) Stephanie (Rhoades) and I feel that there are so many people out there writing new musicals that don’t get the opportunity to see them produced,” MacKellan explains. “These shows need a chance, and it’s time to let people see them. In this economy it’s harder than ever for people to get new musicals done. We’re planning on a new show for the 2009-10 season. We did one thing fairly well and opened people’s eyes to this huge history of the American musical theater that they didn’t even know existed. We still intend to do that, but it’s time to bring it forward to now.”

Irma LaDouce previews today (Sept. 25) and Friday, Sept. 26 and opens Saturday, Sept. 27. The show continues through Oct. 12 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$42. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org

3 thoughts on “C’est magnifique — `Irma La Douce’ gets intimate

  1. Pingback: C’est magnifique — `Irma La Douce’ gets intimate | London & New York city arrivals

  2. I was really sorry to hear about Steve who is one of my favorite singer/actors. We are going Saturday night to the press opening so it should be interesting. There is a lot of comment on all that chat–west coast about Steve’s injury and if he will be in the cast at a later date.

  3. Actually he will not be appearing. Steve who has had knee problems in the past was walking down the steps of Bart when one of the knees gave out. He had quite a tumble and could not walk. Doctors were suppose to operate on the knee on the night of the opening of “Irma” but complications set in. They will operate later. He will not be performing for quite a while, I am afraid.

    “Irma” is a good production and it has been made more intimate then from the musicals I have seen in the past. When I was living in England as part of Warners Brother in 58 I invested in the English production. I had seen a private film of the intimate French Production in Paris in 56. The British producers decided to make the musical bigger and with a lot of dance. American even went futher with the show. Greg has put it back to initmate with a cast of 11. Kyle Payne did an incrediable job of learning all of the complicated lines with no script in three days. All in all it is an intertaining show.

    There was a lot of flack on all that chat–west coast by some our more pompous members who think only Broadway should do musicals and not small companies like 42nd Street Moon. However some of our members put them in their place.

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