Coco [musicals in mufti reading series]

Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Music by André Previn
Directed by Mark Kaufman
Music Direction by Michael Horsely
Featuring Charles Kimbrough, Andrea Marcovicci, and others
The York Theatre Company, 619 Lexington Avenue (Corner of 54th St.)
production web site:
September 10-12, 2010

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 12, 2010

The Katharine Hepburn fans among us may have heard of or even seen this never-revived musical inspired by the life of Coco Chanel that ran on Broadway from December 1969 into October 1970.  (See basic credits here:  Much of the music in this piece is predictable and some sweet pieces deserve ongoing life in cabaret performance, if not quite standard status.  The York Theatre “Musicals in Mufti” series (i.e. bare staged production, street clothes) provides us a rare chance to see how these tunes hang together with dialogue, in three dimensions.  The book challenges; these performances enchant.

I know more about this show from Kate’s own writings about it in her memoir Me and production still photographs than I do from seeing the production with her in it (I didn’t) or listening to the cast recording (I haven’t).  So in a way I am paying respect to something that Hepburn took on stalwartly and stayed with gamely when the critics were not glowing about the show during that original run.  She sang and danced and wore skirts and heels (or a version of them) through her portion of the run.  So I settle into the intimate space in the lower lower level of St. Peters Church on 54th Street.  (I’m still learning that in Manhattan spaces works vertically more often than horizontally.)  And the evening is a pleasure.

Perusing the playbill before the first act begins, I attempt to guess which of the unfamiliar tunes listed by name I will like best.  Which of the tunes by title alone feel like they will have “legs”?  I guess that “Someone On Your Side” and “When Your Lover Says Goodbye” might have the torchy, ballady touch I like in my show tunes.  In the playing, I learn that “Let’s Go Home” has pathos and charm as a lover’s tune, and “Someone On Your Side” is indeed a sweet soprano ballad.  “When Your Lover Says Goodbye” turns out to be a comic tune performed by a middle-aged married man discarding yet another young lover (or strategizing a way for her to leave him) and is not quite the yearning love song I had imagined.

This musical as a piece of drama plays like a very old fashioned romance that creates dramatic tension out of relationships rather than world events. The childless Coco (Andrea Marcovicci) returns to create a new collection in 1953-1954 after some years out of the business, summarizes her past lovers and her choice to focus on her financial independence (“The Money Rings Out Like Freedom”), emotionally attaches to the young orphan Noelle (Jessica Grove) who has come to work for her, and responds jealously when Noelle decides to return to her young man Georges (Peter Lockyear).  When the play opens, Coco has returned to designing after a multi-year break that is not explained (World War II has intervened yet has been over for some years — why the additional delay?), assisted by old friend Louis Greff (Charles Kimbrough) and able assistant Pignol (played like a capable Agnes Gooch to Auntie Mame by Susan Blommaert).  The play’s primary dramatic arcs involve the competition for Noelle’s affections and well as preparations for a new design collection, navigating backstage egos, primarily involving an assistant and designer Sebastian (David Turner).  Sebastian has several waspish star turns including “Fiasco” (with a delivery that evokes memories of Robert Preston doing “The Lady from Seville” in the movie Victor/Victoria) about what he perceives to be a disastrous collection showing.  Marcovicci delivers all Coco’s lines with skill, and emotes her way through her ensemble and solo tunes with aplomb.  Jessica Grove as Noelle gives a sweet and nuanced performance as the young woman coming into her own, finding her own style and voice.  And Peter Lockyer as Georges, Noelle’s lover, has a sexy and full baritone voice that could take on Emile De Becque in South Pacific in a few years time.

The ensemble crafts admirable performances out of the materials this book, these songs, and this plotting provide them.  Yet —  there is so much more with which to create dramatic tension in Coco’s life (e.g. poor childhood, residence in Paris during the Occupation and just how well did she know the Nazi Occupiers?) — the organizational and social level dramas could indeed provide a more universal tale here with this story’s journey.

signed playbill. not mine. from original production.

All that said, there is much to value in this spare reading/production. Perhaps most important, from the book we have a slew of quotable quotes from our fictional Coco that kept my audience entertained.   I would pay good money to hear audio of Hepburn delivering these lines and, better yet, delivering these in front of an audience, capturing the audience reactions.  I’ll leave this review with a sample of those quips.

  • To a rigidly dressed woman.  “You look hermetically sealed.  You should be as comfortable in your clothes as in your skin.”
  • “A woman needs independence not equality.  In most cases equality is a step down.”
  • “Love isn’t blind, it’s short-sighted.”
  • To her employee/protegé/surrogate daughter Noelle on their many points of similarity: “You make me feel like a loud noise and you’re my echo.”
  • Remembering an unfaithful early love. “[He] thought I was one in a million.  I knew I was one of a million.”
  • “Any time the younger generation rebels, the revolution begins in clothes.”
  • On her introduction of slacks into women’s wardrobes: “Soon all the sisters and cousins and aunts were calling me the pirate of men’s pants.”
  • “There is no bitch like  a man, is there?”
  • “People with no standards have nothing to compromise.”
  • “You don’t get married to escape boredom — you get divorced.”
  • In response to fey assistant Sebastian proclaiming that he has quit, she instructs another: “Louis, open the window and let him out.”
  • “Men and women deserve something better than each other.”

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 13, 2010)

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