by Alix Cohen
Last year, in an effort to find connections between Marseille and his art, Jean-Christophe Born did internet research for a show about nineteenth century demi-mondain entertainer Gaby Deslys whose home it was. He has a fascination with “the good old days of show business.” Vocalist Perrine Cabassud would play the star.
Searching YouTube for Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano” (from 1915’s Stop! Look! Listen!), he came across performer Mark Nadler whose flamboyant rendition had, he thought, exactly the right tenor. They spoke. Nadler was enthusiastic. Born came to New York to work with him and in April, Nadler flew to Marseille where I’m A Good Little Devil! had its debut. (Its French version utilizes only French patter.) The show is an engaging hoot. And beautifully turned out.
After a piano overture by Nadler in tails and spats and an introduction to Deslys, Born sings Irving Berlin’s “The Girl on the Magazine (Cover)”: The girl I love/Is on a magazine cover/It seems they painted her just for me…, an ode to their subject. His splendid tenor and captivating expression are palpably besotted. The performer brings to the production a fitting balance of sincerity and over-exaggeration suiting the era.
“And now, la femme que vouz desirez…” (the woman you desire) introduces “Philomene” (E. Rimbault/Hernri Christine). Perrine enters wonderfully costumed and elaborately hatted. She sings in French. “This is a woman,” Nadler explains, “who likes to wear big, fancy hats and clothes…” Her embarrassed husband objects to no avail. Perrine’s operetta vocal is accompanied by wide eyes and mock distress. Ah the voice, but she could be flirtier throughout.
It’s difficult to tell whether Perrine and Born are dancing the real “Gaby Glide” Harry Pilcer/Louis A. Hirsch) on this tiny stage. Choreography could be sharper. The number originated in an operetta that featured the debut of chorus girl Mae West with a bit part played by young Al Jolson (in blackface.) Pilcer and Deslys became a couple on stage and off.
“Reviens Veux-Tu” (Come Back to Me- Harry Fragson/Henri Christine; English lyrics Worton David) arrives in French and English by way of a plaintive Born. The vocalist draws a bunch of violets …constant and true… from his interior pocket. …Come back! Come Back! … Heartache. Heartbreak. Jeanette MacDonald would’ve melted. A last, undulating long note lingers. The title song then declares …men say I am beautiful… / It may be true-Let me make the most of it…a sentiment likely echoing Deslys’ philosophy. (Gifts to her were renowned.)
The exuberant “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (Irving Berlin) begins with a capella singing and an infectiously cheery tap dance by Nadler. He’s joined by Born in white top hat and tails and Perrine in sequins and netting. The company has a grand time with this one. Nadler continues tapping from the piano bench. We end in aptly mugged harmony.
“Hello My Dearie” (Gene Buck/Dave Stamper), a cute duet, finds Perrine and Born on telephones at opposite sides of the stage. He yearns, she’s coy, then mercenary. The tongue-in-cheek exchange is well played. A simply lovely “Les Delices” (A. Bosc) is played while Gaby, in white, holding an ostrich feather fan, puts on jewelry beneath flickering, silent film light. ‘An enchanting effect, but more amplified movement would take better advantage.
Nadler’s extravagant vivacity lets loose with “I Love a Piano.” The song is now vaudeville, now musical, now classical, now ragtime. Fingers race, then caress. Hands pound. He appears detached, adjusts cuffs and lapel without missing a note, raises and lowers his left hand like a metronome, counts, looks up at the ceiling. His head lolls; he falls off the piano bench…but keeps playing…faster and faster and faster…posts up and down as if riding with an English saddle, giggles, leaps (literally) and segues into boogie woogie- twirling one of his tails.
Billed as “tasteful and refined” even as Nadler dons a sequined vest, the finale erupts in sequins, feathers, and uncontrollable helium balloons. A skillfully arranged three-part rendition of “Night Club Girl” (Max Darewski) is appealing. Nadler’s parting and peeking through Gaby’s halo of feathers leaves a perfect echoing image.
Highly imaginative costumes are designed by Mireille Doering-Born who is also likely responsible for the glamorous curtain toted from France. Gaby’s intricate finale ensemble is utter Ziegfeld Follies.
Actress/singer/dancer Gaby Deslys- an abbreviation for Gabrielle of the LIllies (born Marie-Elise-Gabrielle Caire: 1881 –1920), rose from Paris and London dancehalls to become one of the most popular, highest paid entertainers of her time. Internationally known, she was amorously pursued by the wealthy and royal cultivating a notorious personality that included a carved, gilded bed inspired by the boat in the “Grotto of Venus” scene from the opera “Tannhauser”.
Production Photos by Steve Friedman
The Triad Theatre February 10, 2018
Venue Calendar: http://www.triadnyc.com/
By Alix Cohen