Review: `Irma La Douce’

Alison Ewing (left) is the lone woman in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Irma La Douce, the story of a sweet Parisian prostitute. Playing some of the “mecs” in her life are (from top) Michael Barrett Austin, Rudy Guerrero and Victor-Alexander Tapia. Photo by David Allen


`Irma’ sells it, Moon sings it

As the only woman in a show full of men, Alison Ewing is a bright light in every way.

She’s playing a hooker with a heart of gold (is there any other kind in musical theater?) in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Irma La Douce, a 1950s show that began life as a distinctly Parisian musical then slowly got blown out of proportion in its translations to the British and later the Broadway stage.

Ewing, making her 42nd Street Moon debut, sings and dances like a pro, looks great in Irma’s tight costumes and almost manages to make sense of the mostly nonsensical character. And that’s no small feat given the silly plot she has to deal with.

Irma walks the streets of Paris’ “Milieu” and happily turns tricks for her “mec” (pimp), played by a grunting Rudy Guerrero, and all is right with the world. She and her clients all socialize at the local bar and swill anisette after anisette.

Then a law student named Nestor (Kyle Payne, filling in for injured leading man Steve Rhyne, who will not be returning to the production) attempts to come between Irma and her mec’s fist. In a blazingly inane show of law book intellect, Nestor somehow wins Irma from the mec and the two embark on an awkward personal/business relationship.

Here’s where Irma gets positively Shakespearean. Sick of Irma selling herself to a long line of leering Parisians, Nestor disguises himself as rich old man (fedora, ratty bird, glasses) named Oscar and becomes Irma’s sole customer.

Now, we have come to like Irma quite a bit (especially as embodied by Ewing), but the fact that she can’t see through the stupid disguise or recognize her lover’s undisguised body is a little too absurd – even for musical theater.

Irma really goes off the rails in Act 2 when Nestor decides he’s had it with Oscar and disposes of the disguise and gets tried for murder in the process. He’s sent to Devil’s Island, somehow escapes on a raft (just where the raft comes from remains a mystery) and attempts to return to a pregnant Irma in Paris.

The show has been described as an “adult fairy tale” which is a way to gloss over prostitution and poor writing in one glossy tag line. But people rarely come to a musical for the plot.

The score, specifically the music by Marguerite Monnot, is delightful. For the 42nd Street Moon show, pianist and musical director Dave Dobrusky is ably assisted by busy reeds player Nick DiScala, who plays just about everything but an accordion.

The show’s two best numbers belong to Ewing’s Irma: “Dis-Donc, Dis-Donc” in Act 1 and “Irma-la-Douce” in Act 2. Rousing and sharply staged by choreographer Linda Posner, the numbers feel unquestionably French and have more life in them than the moribund book (the original French book and lyrics are by Alexandre Breffort, and the English book and lyrics are by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman). The oft-reprised ballad “Our Language of Love” is lovely and worth hearing repeatedly.

Director Greg MacKellan’s effective pacing of the scenes gets somewhat hobbled by the blackout scene changes (to drag on and off the minimal set pieces designed by Tom Orr), but the general vivacity of the production and the appealing cast – headed by 42nd Street Moon veteran Bill Fahrner as narrator Bob-le-Hotu – keeps the evening lively.


Irma La Douce continues through Oct. 12 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St. San Francisco. Tickets are $24-42. Call 415-255-8207or visit

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