Silk Stockings was songwriter Cole Porter’s last Broadway musical. The 1955 production ran for over a year, but unlike Porter’s biggest smash, the twice Broadway-revived Kiss Me Kate, Silk Stockings has pretty much vanished from view and memory. Thus, Musical Theatre West’s revisal of the Cold War comedy comes as something of an event, especially with a much rewritten book by Stuart Ross of Forever Plaid fame, who also directs.

Though MTW’s production is still rough around the edges (Executive Director/Producer Paul Garman says to consider it a work in progress), it has such ingratiating and often show-stopping performances (plus Ross’s cleverly tweaked book) that it is a definite crowd-pleaser, and no more so than when some of Porter’s most memorable hits are sung. (In addition to the romantic ballads “All Of You” and “Paris Loves Lovers,” this revival adds a bilingual English/Russian “What Is This Thing Called Love” (originally from 1929’s Wake Up And Sing), “Taking The Steps To Russia” (from 1938’s Leave It To Me) and “Paree, What Did You Do To Me?” from 1929’s Fifty Million Frenchmen) but subtracts “Without Love”.)

Ross’s book sets the action in 1960, a year in which a supposed international pact between the USA and the USSR has led to the Paris filming of the musical blockbuster Red Hot And Cold, “suggested by” Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace and Memoirs Of A USO Dancer—our first hint of Ross’s to my mind deliciously campy sense of humor.  When the film’s composer-turned-songwriter Peter Ilych Boroff learns that he has been summoned immediately back to Russia for Lenin’s birthday celebration, he is naturally upset. The event is eight months away, you see. Three comic commissars are dispatched from Moscow to “force him of his own free will to come back.”  Before long, the commissars are getting French lessons and manicures from pretty Parisiennes.  

Like the George F. Kaufman-Lueen MacGrath-Abe Burroughs original, Ross’s rewrite has humorless special envoy Nina Yaschenko sent to “rescue” both Peter and the commissars from the pleasures of Paris.  Once there, the cute and curvy (beneath her stony expression and unflattering communist garb) Ninotchka discovers that “champagne is more fun to drink than goat’s milk” and soon finds herself melting under the warm glow of the Paris sun and the equally intoxicating attentions of American movie director Steve Canfield.

In a subplot (which allows choreographer extraordinaire Lee Martino to once again show off her prodigious gifts), Red Hot And Cold stars glamorous Hollywood bombshell Janice Dayton, who stops the show again and again with some of Porter’s cleverest lyrics and snazziest melodies, among them “Stereophonic Sound,” a celebration of the then latest film technology (“The customers don’t like to see the groom embrace the bride unless her lips are scarlet and her bosom’s five feet wide, in Glorious Technicolor, Breath-taking Cinemascope, or Cinerama, VistaVision, Superscope, or Todd-A-O and stereophonic sound”) and “Josephine,” a salute to the French Empress “commonly called Jo” with her “agitating eyes, scintillating thighs, lubricating lips, undulating hips, figure simply swell, and other good points as well”).

Ross’s revised book is filled with irresistible one-liners.  When one of the commissars learns that Prokofiev has died, he remarks, “I didn’t even know he’d been arrested.”  When Steve suggests to Nina that she would be perfect to play Portia, she tells him, “I have, in Gorky’s Merchant Of Venice.” And when Nina asks her Soviet friend Sonya if she has anything special to wear on her honeymoon night, a proud Sonya replies, “I have a new canvas brassiere!”

As Ninotchka, TV/movie’s Julie Ann Emery returns to her musical theater roots in a performance that gets her an “A” for adorable.  Emery (a fine singer) is so darn cute that you can’t wait to see her face light up as you know it will under the spell of Paris and Steve.  Broadway’s song and dance man John Scherer (LoveMusik, Sunset Boulevard, and a bunch of East Coast regional credits) makes a welcome MTW debut as the man who melts Ninotchka’s heart.  The two duet “Paris Loves Lovers” and “On Through The Seasons We Sail” and share some nifty stage chemistry as well.

Though the film adaptation’s Cyd Charisse had several dazzling dance numbers created for her by Eugene Long and Hermes Pan, here the dancing goes to Darcie Roberts’ Janice, and as she did in MTW’s “The Pajama Game” and “The Andrews Brothers,” Roberts proves once again that she is one of our most dazzling triple threats.  Time and again in Silk Stockings, Roberts (who possesses one of the most deliciously distinctive sopranos in the biz) has the audience cheering, especially backed up by Martino’s talented dance ensemble (Amy Batchelor, Jennifer Bishop, Jennifer Brasuell, Victor Hernandez (Commissar Markovich), Chris Holly, Rebecca Johnson (Sonia), Allison Little, Morgan Kei Masatoshi, Jo Patrick, Aaron Phillips (Henri), Daniel Smith, and Martino muse John J. Todd).

You won’t find a funnier trio of “Russians” than high-kicking Nick DeGruccio, Paul Kreppel, and Stuart Pankin, whose “Too Bad,” “Hail Bibinski,” and (especially) “Siberia” show of both their comedic gifts and Porter’s way with a lyric: “When we meet in sweet Siberia, to protect us from diphtheria, we can toast our toes on the lady Eskimos, in cheery Siberi—a.” (Ross’s book gets its biggest laugh when DeGruccio declares about Siberia, “And we can see Alaska from there!”) Cute and talented Andy Taylor gets laughs too as composer Boroff, and Johnson is a hoot as a black-clad Piaf-like French chantoozie, a cigarette ever dangling from her ruby lips while accompanied by an obnoxious mime (aren’t they all?) and requisite accordionist.

Martino’s high-energy choreography is as always sensational, blending ballet, jazz, and Russian dance steps. Musical supervisor Darryl Archibald does his usual fabulous work conducting the MTW orchestra, with new orchestrations by John Glaudini. Sharell Martin once again shows off her costuming pizzazz with a bunch of spiffy 1950s gowns. Driscoll Otto’s lighting and Julie Ferrin’s sound design are at MTW’s accustomed level of excellence. Only the show’s bare bones set (by Evan Bartoletti) is not what the production deserves, and though Jeff Weeks’ wigs for the ensemble are just fine, poor Emery’s is about two-sizes too big for her petite frame, and Roberts’ too is not the flattering cut the star deserves. 

Still and all, audiences will cheer simply for the chance to see Silk Stockings again, and in the talented and capable hands of its stellar cast and crew, this revival is Red Hot And HOT.

Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, located on the campus of California State University, Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
November 8, 2008
Photos: Ambrose Martin

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