The rapturous “I Love Paris” is the the most famous song in the musical, “Can-Can.” But the lavish production of “Can-Can” that is currently at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, with a revised book along with the classic Cole Porter score, is easier to like than to love.
For all the musical’s energetic dance numbers, it is, essentially, a love story, and the love story does not draw you in. Kate Baldwin’s La Mome Pistache is the owner of a red-light district dance hall in 1890s Paris who is so coldly calculating she gives in to a scoundrel’s romantic advances just to benefit her business, and Jason Danieley’s Aristide Forestier is the moralistic judge seeking to arrest all those involved in the dance hall, for lewdness; they’re a couple you don’t really root all that hard for.
Forestier has a moment, toward the end of the first act, when his humanity emerges, and it feels liberating. But Pistache’s never really does. And the idea, in the revised book, to give them a back story — they were passionate lovers, many years ago, but broke up tragically, only to re-meet now, by chance — is a bad one, reeking of sitcom-like contrivance.
The dancing often has a breathtaking athleticism to it. But there are only so many ways for a woman to lift her dress to show her underwear — the scandalous element of the original “Can-Can” dance that seems quite tame today. As a result, there is a lot of repetition in the choreography.
The excision of the original musical’s elaborate “Garden of Eden” dance is a wise move, helping to make the second act faster-moving and more satisfying than the first. Though while they were at it, they should have cut the dance in which a man and a woman beat the crap out of each other. The woman is ultimately triumphant, but it’s tasteless to act out this kind of mutual abuse, no matter how elegantly the blows are executed. This was really much more shocking than the frequent glimpses of the dancers’ underwear.
Despite its flaws, this production has a lot going for it. The Porter songs (including “C’est Magnifique,” “It’s All Right With Me,” “Live and Let Live” and “Come Along With Me”) have lost none of their charm. The sets and costumes are impressive. There is some great clowning (particularly by Greg Hildreth, as Paris’ least talented sculptor) and some good visual gags. And Michael Berresse has a strong, dastardly presence as the musical’s villain, a powerful newspaper critic.
An improvement over the 1960 Hollywood overhaul of “Can-Can” (starring Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra), this update may be going to Broadway next season. It would offer there — as it is offering now, in Millburn — a reasonably satisfying night or afternoon at the theater, especially for those nostalgic for old-fashioned musicals.
But it won’t sweep you off your feet.
“Can-Can” is at the Paper Mill Playhouse through Oct. 26. For ticket information, visit papermill.org.
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