Silk Stockings was the last original stage production scored by the legendary composer Cole Porter. With the exception of “All of You,” none on its songs can be considered among the many brilliant pop standards that exemplify his extraordinary body of work. Then again, this less than stellar Broadway swansong is arguably better than most of what American musical theatre has had to offer in the last forty years!
Despite a history of trouble-plagued tryouts, it was met with great box office success when it opened in 1955. Interestingly, a national tour played at the Curran Theatre a year later. Followed shortly thereafter by a movie version with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, it would fall quickly into oblivion. A stage reading in NYC revived interest in 2005. 42nd Street Moon is owed a debt of gratitude for reintroducing this wrongly forgotten Cold War relic to San Francisco audiences over a half-century later.
The book, written by George S. Kaufman, Leueen MacGrath and Abe Burrows, is an adaptation of the superior 1939 classic Ernst Lubitsch film “Ninotchka,” starring Greta Garbo. The story involves Nina Yoschenko (Lee Ann Payne), a stern special envoy dispatched by the USSR to retrieve three wayward comrades who succumbed to the charms of 1950s Paris. Of course, she too eventually finds herself seduced by the decadent appeal of the City of Light and falls in love with a Hollywood agent, Steve Canfield (Ian Simpson).
It’s been twenty years since the fall of the Iron Curtain, and despite its undeniable shortcomings, capitalism as an economic model has been widely embraced by the former “Red” nation-states. That leads one to wonder whether the sly political observations and broad Russian stereotypes will resonate with anyone under 40. Stripped of its immediate relevance, what remains is a modest love story, witty lyrics and dialogue, and a rather thin plot.
It’s not unfair to suggest that the siren-voiced Ms. Payne does not possess the beauty of a Garbo, or the leggy sex appeal of a Charisse – but she is a far better actor than either one. She brings an emotional depth and deft comic sensibility to what is otherwise a caricature of Soviet womanhood pervasive during the period.
As the romantic lead, mellifluous tenor Mr. Simpson is excellent as the suave and debonair, albeit morally suspect, American ‘capitalist’ who wins Ninotchka’s heart. His carefree performance and physical appearance harkens back to the matinee idols of the era – think Van Johnson or Danny Kaye.
Dyan McBride, education director of the company, is hilarious in her scene-stealing turn as Janice Dayton, bird-brained queen of the “acquamusical” (a la Esther Williams). Her fun and irrepressible renditions of “Stereophonic Sound” and “Satin and Silk,” accompanied by the multi-talented ensemble, enliven the proceedings and highlight the mastery she brings to her craft.
Perhaps it was Kaufmann’s experience writing for the Marx brothers, but the interplay and characterizations of the errant trio of Communists are entertaining enough to be central characters. They’re realized to perfection by Michael Rhone, Jackson Davis and Jeremy Vik; in a different time they could easily have taken their show on the road! And their marvelous interpretation of “Siberia,” showcasing some delightful choreography by Jayne Zaban, is a genuine crowd-pleaser.
Notwithstanding the first-rate cast and brisk direction by Greg MacKellan, the material never quite reaches a crescendo, but the toe-tapping “The Ritz Roll and Rock,” featuring a wonderful cameo by the hard-working musicians Dobrusky and Di Scala, comes awfully close. Its incongruous tone, however, does smack of the songwriter pandering to the contemporaneous rise in popularity of rock and roll.
Be that as it may, this production represents a successful end to a triumphant season at one of the City’s finest entertainment treasures.
42nd Street Moon, The Eureka Theatre, San Francisco
3.5 out of 5 stars
Book by George S. Kaufman, Leueen MacGrath and Abe Burrows
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Directed by Greg MacKellan
May 4 – 22, 2011