Even nostalgia, says the old joke, isn’t what it used to be. The past is so prepackaged for us—streamlined to save money, updated to be hip, reduced to its crudest icons for dumbing down—that finding someone who knows how to bring it to life, even partially, is a small miracle. Still, you know what one of those songs from the past says about a hundred million miracles: They’re all over the place, just waiting for us to stumble on them. If you’re familiar with nostalgia’s hideouts, last week you could hardly have failed to stumble on Patti LuPone’s performance in the Encores! concert staging of Cole Porter’s 1953 musical Can-Can. But stumble is the wrong word; only someone in seven-league boots could stumble on a fire truck with all bells clanging, which is what LuPone’s performance resembled. Togged out in an auburn-red wig and a crimsonish gown, she looked a little like a three-alarmer herself, and generated enough heat on opening night to prove it with ceiling-cracking applause.
LuPone’s limitations as an artist, long familiar and often recited with glee by show-music junkies, were barely in evidence. Once or twice she slurred a lyric; she squeezed a few top notes unpleasantly, and decorated a very few phrases with a contemporary-pop pitch wobble inappropriate to Porter’s music; but that was all. For the rest, as Pistache, proprietress of a Montmartre dance hall circa 1893, she conducted herself convincingly, with tough seductiveness, and knocked all her songs to the back wall with the knowing mix of ease and alacrity that always says, “Here is the star of a Broadway show.”
The feat was made more impressive by the shortfall around LuPone. Can-Can is an uneven score, containing five or six of Porter’s greatest songs along with one or two of his weakest. Its original production battled its way to a long run past mixed reviews, and attempts to revive it (I’ve seen two) have had iffy results at best. LuPone, with help from Michael Kosarin’s musical direction, made the weak songs work nearly as well as the strong ones.
To a large extent, vocally, she was out there alone. The show’s original production took pains to give its star, French music-hall diva Lilo, the only woman’s voice of prominence: Its second largest female role—in which Gwen Verdon became a star, and to which Charlotte d’Amboise, at Encores!, brought an appealing presence—is a dance role, with only incidental singing. The important numbers not carried by Pistache, including one of the show’s three standards, “It’s All Right With Me,” are given to her romantic opponent, a puritanical judge who wants to suppress the “obscene” can-can but can’t help falling in love with the dance-hall entrepreneuse. Lonny Price’s Encores! production gave this role to Michael Nouri, whose easygoing charm and thick mane of wavy gray hair suggested a rival café proprietor more than an uptight jurist; and Nouri’s voice, frankly, was not in shape for Porter’s long, plaintive phrases. Neither, regrettably, were those of Reg Rogers and Paul Schoeffler, as, respectively, d’Amboise’s talentless sculptor-lover and the critic who tries to make him famous in order to make her. Both actors produced loud, abrasive tones, disconnected as if every phrase were marked “staccato,” that drained charm from the comedy numbers. Rogers, an actor I always find overly earnest, weighed down his dialogue as well.
LuPone was not the evening’s only asset. Melinda Roy’s choreography was hit-or-miss, but the hits—including a larky “Never Be an Artist” and a spectacular, acrobatically demanding first-act can-can—counted far more than the misses. Price, who must deserve some credit for LuPone’s strongly centered performance, kept the action fluid, and David Lee’s concert adaptation kept the best laugh lines of Abe Burrows’s original script while elucidating its cluttered story. Price fell victim, though, to one of our era’s really moronic stage conventions: making characters in plays with foreign settings speak with foreign accents. This is ridiculous because first, the characters are supposed to be speaking their own language (no one in Can-Can should have an accent except the sculptor, a Bulgarian), and second, because American and English actors, especially in musicals, mispronounce foreign words so badly that the absurdity is redoubled. Even here, LuPone was ahead of the game, sounding much more French than her colleagues.
Style isn’t everything but it can be decisive. Proof: Look in on Max Morath’s one-man show at the York Theatre. As commanding and distinctive in his own field as LuPone is in hers, Morath, now past 70, is like her an artist whose limitations are well-known. His talk rambles, sometimes ineffectively; his crack-note singing requires exactly the right material, which it doesn’t always get; and he’s definitely not the person you want to hear reciting Robert W. Service. All of that disappears, however, when he sits down at the piano: This is a solo show with 89 performers, and the other 88 are the keys. When Morath explodes into “Steeplechase Rag,” or blowtorches the fastest version of “Maple Leaf Rag” I’ve ever heard into the middle of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” you’re there with an artisan who understands everything there is to know about his craft, giving results as sturdy, and as precious, as anything the glassblowers or lace makers of an ancient guild could turn out.