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Theater Review: How Was Irma la Douce Ever a Hit?!

Jennifer Bowles, Rob McClure in Irma La Douce. Jennifer Bowles and Rob McClure in Irma La Douce.

Whores are so jolly. At least in France. Take Irma la Douce, that charming poule: What won’t she get into! First, she falls in love with a law student who figures out a way to get her off the streets by inventing an old man who will buy her sexual favors exclusively. But then he gets transported for life. And then the old man is fake-murdered. This is such fun that Irma is all the time singing and dancing with the pimps at the local bar. What a lark! And what sophistication! Like when Irma gets pregnant and everyone hopes it’s a girl because — well, you know. “Don’t count your poules before they’re hatched,” a detective warns lasciviously. Prenatal prostitution jokes: Quel drôle!

Well, perhaps the joke came off better in 1960, when Irma la Douce, a hit in Paris and then in London, opened on Broadway and ran for 15 months. On the evidence of the production that opened Wednesday at Encores! — its first to feature a show not written in the U.S. — I have to say this is entirely mystifying. The book, adapted by a trio of English hacks from the French original, is possibly the most repulsive I have ever encountered and, for what it’s worth, the most bizarre. Elements of melodrama, farce, and police procedural struggle to cohere but keep separating like bad mayonnaise. And just when you think the thing can’t get any weirder, there’s the penguin-hallucination ballet. Oh, you read that right. 

Apparently 1960 Broadway audiences, tiring of Rodgers and Hammerstein uplift, warmed to the show’s “frank” treatment of sex, though the frankness now reads as a smokescreen for smarm. The fablelike tone is also a dodge to keep the reeking thing at arm’s length. The result is part Fantasticks, part letters to Penthouse. And, to modern sensibilities, wholly misogynistic — with a soupçon of homophobia and racism thrown in for good measure. You could say this is an accurate representation of the period, but the movie of BUtterfield 8 came out the same year. Even Sweet Charity had a more realistic, if still lighthearted, take on the plight of women for hire. And those gals had a Cy Coleman score.

Irma’s music is by Marguerite Monnot, who had earlier written several Piaf hits. She provides the show with a few lovely melodies, then proceeds to drill them into your ears until you want to shoot the accordionist. (Not his fault; he and the rest of the Encores! orchestra, especially the overworked percussionist, are excellent.) The lyrics are even more annoying. Half seem only partly translated (sample titles: “Dis-Donc,” “Wreck of a Mec,” “Le Grisbi is le Root of le Evil in Man”); the other half, you wish hadn’t been translated at all:

This is the Paris that blossoms at night
Hiding in whispers away from the light
This is the Paris that turns in its sleep
Up on the hill where the sad gutters weep.

Whether a satisfying production of Irma la Douce is possible is, as the judges say, a question we do not reach. The Encores! version is a rare botch. I am a big fan of the director, John Doyle, but his dour sensibility does not do wonders for this disagreeably insouciant material. What little humor there is gets squashed by a heavy, dark design and general confusion of style. (The farce elements are hideously belabored.) And the cast, working way too hard to make an impression through the fog of metaphorical Gauloises, doesn’t. 

Maybe it would take a full-bore zany like Jerry Lewis, so beloved of the French, to make material like this silly enough to be palatable. Or a sexual culture so far advanced from our own that laughing at the wacky life of streetwalkers would be like laughing at cavemen now. In the meantime, let’s put this one back in its box and bury it. No one will weep — except the sad gutters.

Irma la Douce is at City Center through May 11.

Photo: Joan Marcus