The term artiste isn’t used much anymore. It reeks of mediocre talent paired with lavish narcissism, a relic of nineteenth-century popular entertainment, a pejorative ironism on the original French. The Artiste in Jean-Luc Lagarce’s Music Hall might deserve the sneer from translator Joseph Long, but audiences discovering this major twentieth-century French dramatist in this NYC premiere will have to wade through other, sometimes confounding interpretations under Zeljko Djukic’s gauche direction.
As Lagarce’s faded actress, worn down by 30 years of touring the inhospitable backwaters of French provincialism, Jeffrey Binder (The Lion King, The Lieutenant of Inishmore) substitutes Broadway polish, panache, and a perfect smile for rawness, grit, and instinct. Natasha Djukic’s half-drag costumes, a mash-up of Arsenic and Old Lace and Jersey Boys, only exacerbate the miscasting. Fashion faux pas — including a maddeningly shedding boa — are rife, but Michael Doonan and Darren Hill, as the Artiste’s backup act, overcome theirs with self-deprecating humor and graceful touches of Josephine Baker’s “De Temps en Temps.”
It’s not at all clear what note Djukic’s production aims to hit. The identifying features of the music-hall genre — a cultural staple with a distinct history that still resonates in France — fade here into a generic lounge act that excites neither sympathy nor pity, though both are central to Lagarce. “The words of love are pale, they bore me,” the cast sings à la Baker. In this waxen Music Hall, we’re tempted to agree.