First, some glad tidings. The Kendall Center, Taproot Theatre’s new building (adjacent to the company’s main Greenwood playhouse) has just opened. It is very spiffy and gathers all Taproot operations under one roof, with generous office and shop space, a much more spacious lobby than before and an added “black box” venue that gives Taproot more production (and rental) options.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Taproot’s new holiday show, “Le Club Noel,” a play with music that imagines the denizens of a cozy Parisian nightclub sharing an eventful Christmas in 1933.
The premise is certainly intriguing, given the time and place. And an atmospheric melodrama set in this period could be very entertaining and evocative (see: “Cabaret”). The Taproot offering, under Karen Lund’s direction, has some bright spots — Faith Russell’s take-charge turn as the cabaret’s owner, some pretty ballads and clever novelty tunes in Sam Vance’s original score.
But both the stilted, sentimental script (by Candace Vance) and the overall ambience lack a certain je ne sais quoi, a Left Bank élan without which the City of Light’s luster dims. Also missing from this sincere but bland outing: the insouciant sexiness associated with the Paris of our romantic fantasies (and to some degree, reality).
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The show is very much attuned to history. While Valerie (Russell) and her petite family of employees struggle to keep the Purple Door cabaret open, German fascism is on the rise. So is the far-right movement in France. Political intrigue abounds. And money is scarce, with many Parisians barely scraping by in the winter chill.
Alas, the characters here often serve as historical emblems rather than contoured individuals. The mist of romance is thin, and the dialogue can get tres didactic.
Club singer Chantrice (Candace Vance) is a
single mother whose ex-lover (and maybe her son’s father) Reule (broadly played by Ryan Childers) is now a brutish, dogma-spouting general who returns to torment her.
Ancil (Edd Key), the bandleader, frets about getting relatives out of Hitler’s Germany and reads aloud a letter describing the new German concentration camps. The just-hired cook (Sam Vance) is not only the son of Valerie’s childhood sweetheart but also a former soldier on the run.
Flimsier supporting figures — a fading artist (Nikki Visel), a smug commandant (Jay Cross) — wander through also.
In between plot points, there are chansons backed by a guitar-accordion combo. Yet the music doesn’t have the Parisian swing of the scintillating ’30s gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt and others. And while Candace Vance has a fine voice, one misses the expressive vibrato adopted by the most popular chanteuses of the era — like Berthe Sylva and (a few years later) Edith Piaf.
In fact, the band, which also includes Mark Tyler Miller, often sounds more American folkie (a genre Taproot has excelled at in the bluegrass “Smoke on the Mountain” musicals) than Francaise.
“Le Club Noel” ends on a hopeful note of solidarity in bleak times, with a carol singalong. Wouldn’t that be a perfect time to toss in the rousing French version of “Jingle Bells” (“Vive le Vent”)? Or some other French Christmas tune?
And maybe “Le Club Noel” missed a ripe dramatic and musical opportunity by not making the character played by Russell, an African-American actress, one of the black expat entertainers ’20s and ’30s Paris welcomed and adored. Among them was Ada “Bricktop” Smith, whose real-life Montmartre nightspot was all the rage.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org