The story of an old soldier who, in the final moments of his life, journeys back through time for a final reunion with the people he loved and foolishly lost in World War II Paris packs a considerable emotional punch, thanks to the classic French songs (and a few American imports) used to tell the tale. John Flack and J. Samuel Davis head a strong cast, but on opening night balance problems between the amplified vocals and the band often rendered lyrics incomprehensible or inaudible, especially among the younger singers, and sightlines were not always ideal.
The former problem might be addressed by the time you see the show, though, and you can avoid the latter by not sitting on the center aisle, where characters often stand with their backs to the audience, blocking the view of the cabaret stage. These problems are certainly not enough to overcome the production’s many strengths.
“Café Chanson” starts before you even enter the theatre (or at least it did on opening night) as accordionist Bill Lenihan strikes up “La Vie En Rose” in the lobby and leads the audience into the black box theatre, where they take their seats at the tables of a classic Parisian café, beautifully realized by set and lighting designer Patrick Huber. The place has clearly fallen on hard times; the cabaret stage is dark and the Café Chanson sign dangles drunkenly in front of it. But then The Narrator (Mr. Davis) enters from the back, setting up the story with the lyrics of Charles Aznavour’s 1966 song “La Boheme”. The Old Soldier (Mr. Flack), palsied and on his last legs, staggers on to the cabaret stage to sit facing the audience through a mirror frame. He breathes his last, and then suddenly revives to find himself once again hale and hearty. He steps through the mirror (into the Looking Glass World of his past) and suddenly he’s thrust back into World War II Paris. The sign snaps up into place, the lights brighten, and his memory play begins.
There are other little coups de théâtre like that throughout the ensuing ninety minutes, most of them associated with the songs playwright and director Ken Page has selected to flesh out his rhyming dialog. Sophie Tucker’s 1927 hit “Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t be Wrong”, sung by Madame, the café’s proprietor (Willena Vaughn), is one of them, as is “I’m Not Afraid” (Jacques Brel’s “Fils de” with radically different lyrics by Rod McKuen), in which the Old Soldier’s younger self (Justin Ivan Brown, who unfortunately bears no physical resemblance to Mr. Flack) and the fresh-faced Mademoiselle (Elizabeth Birkenmeier) try to deal with the disintegration of their relationship.
Gia Grazia Valenti, as The Woman, is riveting in a steamy seduction scene with Mr. Brown to the tune of Piaf’s “La Fille de Joie Est Triste (L'Accordéoniste)”. Her character is rather more successful than The Man (Antonio Rodriquez) when he tries to do the same with Aznavour’s “Comme Ils Disent (What Makes a Man)”, which stirred some controversy in 1972 with its sympathetic portrayal of a gay female impersonator. It makes for a stark contrast with the song immediately preceding it (written for the show by music director Henry Palkes and Mr. Page), in which the same character, decked out in flashy drag, rejoices in his desire to be just like “Mam’selle Josephine et Mistinguette”.
As you may have gathered from all of this, the mainspring of the “Café Chanson” story is the way in which the Young Soldier loves and ultimately betrays everyone around him. Even The Narrator, a fellow soldier (albeit from a segregated black regiment) is not immune; only toward the end of the play does the Old Soldier find out that his former friend died in the war. He’d never bothered to contact him after they parted ways in Paris.
The character of the Young Soldier is a bit one-dimensional, however, so it’s never entirely clear why Madame, The Mademoiselle, The Woman, and even The Man find him so irresistible. For me, in fact, making all the characters archetypes without concrete identities or clear motivations tended to take away from the overall emotional impact of the script.
Even so, the final moments of “Café Chanson” are powerful stuff. Mr. Davis’s delivery of The Narrator’s tale of his lost love (Brel’s “Fanette”) is heartbreaking, as is Mr. Flack’s performance of Aznavour’s “Yesterday When I Was Young”, as the Old Soldier faces the lonely wreck he has made of his life. But there’s redemption awaiting in the reprise of “Adieu, Mon Coeur” with the Mademoiselle and the Narrator’s observation that “anyone’s broken heart can heal in the end… Even broken, it just keeps beating like the ticking of a clock, measuring all our days, hours, minutes, until the clock stops and your heart is whole again and healed.”
Mr. Palkes and his fellow musicians (Tova Braitberg on violin, Mike Buerke on woodwinds, and Bill Lenihan on accordion and guitar) sounded great, but I wish sound engineer Josh Limpert and board operator Kevin Miko had given us a better balance between them and the singers. Old pros like Mr. Flack and Mr. Davis were nearly always understandable, but some of the younger singers needed to enunciate more and either project more effectively or have their mic levels and EQ adjusted. None of these are fatal flaws, though, and the other technical aspects of the production, including Claudia Mink Horn’s props and Teresa Dogget’s authentic-looking costumes, are beyond reproach.
One final note: this being World War II Paris, most of the characters smoke, and while the cigarettes are clearly tobacco-free, we all know what happens when (to quote a famous lyric) smoke gets in your eyes.
“Café Chanson” runs through January 27th in the black box theatre at the Kranzberg Center, 501 North Grand. If you love classic French pop songs at all you won’t want to miss it, and new works by local companies are always consummations devoutly to be wished for. For more information: upstreamtheater.org.