Opening a Can-Can of Worms

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

That's the rousing overture to Cole Porter's Can-Can—a musical homage to turn-of-the-century Paris and one of the most gloriously giddy of the composer's creations. Can-Can's songs bubble with Porter's wit and Belle Époque Montmartre is a vintage musical theater setting. So why is the show so rarely staged?

Conventional wisdom is that the book of the musical, that is everything that's not singing or dancing, is a mess. This is hard to believe, especially since the author was Abe Burroughs, who wrote Can-Can right after he wrote the book to Guys & Dolls, arguably the finest book of any Broadway musical. But it’s even harder to judge for one's self, because Burroughs' original work has never been published and almost every subsequent production has tinkered with the script and score.

Continuing this tradition is the Pasadena Playhouse. They've mounted a relatively lavish revival and hired two television writers, Joel Fields and David Lee, to give Can-Can an extreme makeover. In doing so, they've kept the setting, the characters and the basic conflict—an unlikely romance between a stuffy Parisian Judge and a sexy grande dame whose nightclub flaunts censorship laws when her dancers perform the scandalous Can-Can—but they've restructured the story, rewritten much of the dialogue, and applied a generous amount of rouge on the show's rougher edges. Oh, and in a strange move for a show named after a dance—they've cut most of the dancing.

This is even odder, given that the only element of the original 1952 production that everyone agreed was a success was the dancing, in particular that of Gwen Verdon in the role of Claudine. Fields and Lee trim this role—and with it the show-stopping Garden of Eden dance scene—which is sort of like doing Romeo and Juliet without the balcony scene.

Ce la vie...Fields and Lee's work is not treasonous, but it is questionable. They've taken a loose, vaudeville style romp and tried to reshape it as a sleek, neatly organized crowd pleaser. Remember, this is a musical about showgirls who lift their dresses and show off their knickers. Fields and Lee's Can-Can is a soufflé that collapses under the weight of too much calculated effort.

Luckily, the singing and dancing in this Can-Can is accomplished enough. It feels like senior showcase at a first-rate performing arts school. Porter's show ran on Broadway for two years in the 1950's because the individual performers' seasoned talents out-shined the problems with the book. At the Playhouse there's plenty of talent and enthusiasm on stage, but what's missing is a deep connection with the material. This is less a comment on Pasadena's particular cast members and more a failure of today's theatrical economics: filling a large show like Can-Can with career musical professionals almost impossible.

The original Broadway version had 20 dancers and an orchestra of 35. In Pasadena these numbers are reduced by at least two-thirds and the result is dancing that barely gets your blood pumping and music that sounds both tinny and over amplified. Also Porter's breathless score is sometimes played achingly slow, perhaps so the audience can appreciate the songs' deliciously witty wordplay.

The fact that the plot now has a delineated back-story and nicely tied-up ending is little compensation for what time and translation has wrought. What would really make Can-Can rip is bigger music and higher kicks.

Cole Porter's Can-Can runs through August 8 at the Pasadena Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Craig Schwartz