The third and last presentation in the 2014 Encores! Season of Broadway musicals in concert was Irma La Douce, which premièred in New York at the Plymouth Theatre (now the Gerald Schoenfeld) in 1960 and then moved to the Alvin Theatre. Unusual for its era, Irma La Douce was a French musical play (music by Marguerite Monnot and lyrics and book by Alexandre Breffort) which débuted in Paris at the Théâtre Gramont in 1956 and then opened in London’s West End in 1958 (with English book and lyrics by Julian More, David Heneker, and Monty Norman) in a production directed by Peter Brook. The Broadway version, which was produced by David Merrick and starred Elizabeth Seal (in the title role), Keith Michell, and Clive Revill, all from the London cast, played for more than a year, running 524 performances. (The Paris première ran for four years and the London production stayed on the boards for three, accumulating 1,512 performances.) Of the Broadway staging, which was nominated for several 1961 Tonys including Best Musical (Irma lost to Bye Bye Birdie, but Seal won for Best Actress in a Musical), Life magazine said Irma was “a French fairy tale for wicked grown-ups who want to believe in love.” As the title character repeatedly says, “Dis donc!” (an untranslatable French interjection that can mean anything from “wow,” to “goodness,” to “hey,” to “look here,” to “by the way,” to “that’s enough,” to “well,” to “listen,” and just about anything else that expresses surprise or draws attention to what you are about to say; it’s also the title of one of Irma’s most striking songs and dance numbers).
I was a tad young to have seen this “adult” show, which Jack Viertel, Encores! Artistic Director, dubbed “by far the hippest musical on Broadway” in its day, when I was first starting to see Broadway musicals, either in Washington or in New York City, but I recall that Irma did play at D.C.’s National Theatre (before its Broadway run), and there was talk among my parents’ friends of this peculiar (and naughty) play (Dis donc!). (In fact, my mom says she recalls having seen it with my dad, which seems both possible and likely.) Let’s remember that September 1960 was still the Eisenhower era (John F. Kennedy wasn’t elected president until November and didn’t take office until January 1961), more part of the complacent ’50s than the go-go ’60s, so a comedy about a lady of the evening was a startling phenomenon. Irma’s biggest competition on Broadway when it opened was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final collaboration, which Viertel called “undoubtedly the un-hippest” show on Broadway, The Sound of Music: a singing nun versus a singing prostitute! Hair, the musical that put nudity on a Broadway stage, didn’t début there until April 1968, the end of the decade. Sweet Charity, a musical about a taxi dancer, the stand-in for a hooker, opened in January 1966, over five years after Irma La Douce came to New York. (In Federico Fellini’s 1957 film Nights of Cabiria, the young woman was a streetwalker, but Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, and Dorothy Fields sanitized Charity Hope Valentine, who’s still in “the rent-a-body business” in the adaptation, for Broadway consumption.
Soon, I began hearing some of Irma’s score, particularly Clive Revill’s rendition of “The Valse Milieu,” the ballad that introduces the setting and atmosphere of the play (and much of its Parisian argot, which I’ll mention in a bit), and it has always fascinated me. (“Our Language of Love,” sung in the first act and then reprised twice, was the song from Irma’s score that became what Viertel called a “semi-enduring standard.”) Long before there were French musicals on U.S. stages (Les Misérables, 1987-2003; Miss Saigon, 1991-2001), even before the British started writing and exporting musical plays, when musical theater of the kind we know from old-time Broadway was a solely American art form, Irma La Douce was a phenomenon and its very existence was intriguing. (In 1958, a French revue, La Plume de Ma Tante, had opened on Broadway—and also played at the Capital’s National— but that had no book and French musical revues had been the basis for U.S. entertainments for decades, though not at the Broadway level for the most part.) Beyond some of the songs, however, I only knew Irma from the non-musical 1963 Billy Wilder film starring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon, which dispensed with three-quarters of the material’s charm along with the songs. (Without the songs, as you’ll discern, Irma La Douce is just a frantic farce that happens to be about a whore and her pimp. The only explanation I’ve found for the deletion is that Wilder wasn’t comfortable staging songs and dances.) There’s been no revival of Irma in New York aside from a truly stripped-down concert (one piano—but without amplification) in 2008 by Musicals Tonight! and the only other restaging I found in the United States was another concert version in San Francisco in 2008.
The concert version of Irma, the first Encores! musical “that didn’t originate on American soil,” opened at the New York City Center on West 55th Street on 7 May for its customary brief run, closing on 11 May. Diana, my usual theater partner, and I saw the show on Friday evening, 9 May. The concert adaptation and direction was by John Doyle (Tony for the 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd; his 2006 revival of Company won the Best Revival of a Musical Tony), with choreography by Chase Brock (assistant choreographer of the 2003 revival of Wonderful Town on Broadway; Lucille Lortel Award Nominee for Outstanding Choreography for 2011’s The Blue Flower). The orchestra is once again conducted by Encores! Musical Director Rob Berman (who did the same honors for The Most Happy Fella, on which I reported on ROT on 10 April) using arrangements by André Popp and additional orchestrations by Robert Ginzler, the original orchestrators. (Supplemental dance music was composed for Broadway by John Kander.) John Lee Beatty designed the sets, more elaborate for Irma than is usual for Encores!
Irma La Douce, in the dead-on characterization of IBDB, the Internet Broadway Database, “is not only French; it is intensely Parisian French. Set in an area tourists seek, but so seldom find, its musical idiom, its moral atmosphere, its plot and its argot are part of Paris not even all Parisians know.” It is, in the words of the opening number (“The Valse Milieu”), a “story of passion, bloodshed, desire and death . . . everything, in fact, that makes life worth living.” (Dis donc! Along with the argot terms, that phrase has echoed in my head ever since I first heard Revill sing it on the cast recording.) The plot is the tale of Irma-La-Douce (her name means “Irma the Sweet” and is typical of the characters’ names in this play, as you’ll see), a successful Paris prostitute, or poule (‘hen’) in the show’s vocabulary. An impecunious law student, Nestor-Le-Fripe (“Nestor the Shabby”), wanders into Bar-Des-Inquiets (Bar of the Anxious), the bistro in Pigalle, Paris’s red-light district, owned by Bob-Le-Hotu (hotu is a kind of fresh-water fish commonly called a nase, but the slang meaning is hard to translate; the closest I can get here is Bob the Creep), who acts as the narrator. Nestor, like many of the other men in the milieu (argot for the underworld scene), falls in love with Irma and becomes her mec (‘guy’), the local slang for ‘pimp.’ The young law student becomes jealous of her customers, however, so to keep her for himself, Nestor disguises himself as a rich, older man with a long, red beard named Oscar and becomes her sole client. (One reviewer characterized Nestor as “poor but noble”: “poor,” yes, but “noble,” not so much. He’s not trying to save Irma from the streets—he wants to keep her to himself!)
To pay Irma’s fee (grisbi, argot for ‘money’), Monsieur Oscar takes a job polishing a dance floor at night—by hand—and is admired for his coup by the other mecs, who welcome him as one of them: Jojo-Les-Yeux-Sales (“Jojo-Dirty-Eyes”), Robert-Les-Diams (“Robert the Rocks”), Persil-Le-Noir (“Persil the Shady”), and Frangipane (“The Flower”). (Apparently Breffort actually knew a crook called “Jo-Les-Yeux-Sales.” Don’t you just love these French “underworld” names? They’re a hoot ’na half!) But having taken Irma out of the clutches of Polyte-Le-Mou (“Polyte the Bull”), AKA Le Boss, and falling afoul of the corrupt Police Inspector, the chief flic (‘cop’), for taking Irma out of circulation, Nestor makes a few enemies, too. No longer able to keep up this exhausting ruse, however, Irma’s “Wreck of a Mec” does away with his alter ego. Convicted in a kangaroo trial of murdering Oscar, Nestor’s transported to Devil’s Island, the French penal colony off the coast of French Guiana near the Equator. Hearing that Irma is expecting their baby at Christmas, he determines to get home and escapes with the gang of mecs convicted with him. Returning to Paris and proving that Oscar’s not really dead, Nestor and Irma reunite in time for the births of their twin sons, Nestor and Oscar, upon which, in order to conform, however belatedly, to the conventions of morality, they get married. Dis donc!
(I wonder if that last plot bit, which Bob tosses out at the end as a kind of “oh, by the way” afterthought, was added for the tenderer sensibilities of English and American audiences. After all, France is the nation where former President François Mitterrand’s funeral in 1996 was attended by both his wife and his long-time mistress and where another French president, François Hollande, had an affair with an actress while living in the official residence with another mistress—after having separated from his first mistress with whom he had had four children. Dis donc, I don’t think the French would much care if a mec marries his poule or not just because they had a couple of bébés, non.)
Okay, I’m being a little silly, I admit. But that’s sort of the effect that Irma La Douce has. It is silly—without the music and the Gallic frisson it’s practically inane. (It doesn’t help matters that almost the whole story is in act one, leaving mostly a lot of vamping for act two.) Let’s acknowledge right off that M. Breffort is no Molière; he’s not even Jean-François Regnard (“Molière lite,” on whose play The Heir Apparent I reported on 25 April). I don’t know his other plays (he also wrote prose works), none of which seem to have been published or performed in English, but I read that the book for Irma was based on a short piece, Les Harengs terribles (“The terrible herrings,” ca. 1950—and no, I have no idea what it’s about), Breffort wrote for a Paris cabaret performance. (That could explain why Irma couldn’t sustain a two-hour-ten-minute stretch without petering out after intermission.) It’s not just the overall plot that creaks, but several scenes seem to have been composed with Breffort’s logic switch in the off position. (Granted, I don’t really know how much of the book was reinvented by Mssrs. More, Heneker, and Norman.) Nestor’s trial is beyond absurd—and I don’t mean Beckett, Ionesco, or even Kafka—and his attempts to prove that he didn’t kill Oscar because, first, he was Oscar and, then, Oscar’s still alive, defy recapping altogether. (Kris Kringle proves he’s real because he gets mail through the U.S. Post Office; Oscar proves he’s alive because he pays sales tax! Dis donc!) You just have to buy it or the play doesn’t conclude. Despite these weaknesses, though, Irma La Douce is fun precisely because it’s (French) fluff and because of the music, which retains its Gallic panache even in translation. (Marguerite Monnot wrote many of the songs performed by the great French chanteuse Édith Piaf, including “La Vie en rose” and my favorite Piaf recording, “Milord,” and that musical style is audible in several of Irma La Douce’s numbers.)
The musical ensemble, perhaps better described as a band this time, which numbered a “herculean” 38 for Fella, was pared down to ten instruments for Irma, approximating, Viertel said, “the original instrumentation” of the Broadway production. The “café-style band” came “complete with an accordion for Parisian color.” Musically, the decision worked very well indeed, both as a vehicle for the songs and also for the “Parisian color,” which was created and maintained excellently by the musicians (particularly that accordionist, William Schimmel), the singers, the set and costume “consultants,” and the cast. (After Most Happy Fella, I voiced some complaints about the sound system at City Center, and I have to reiterate them here. When one or two people sing, I could distinguish the words well enough, but when there were more than two voices, the lyrics mostly got lost. The sound design for Irma La Douce was from Scott Lehrer.) But there was an unexpected element to the band’s presence on stage—they were placed on a raised bandstand up and left of center stage—and I don’t know whether it was original with director Doyle or came from the West End/Broadway staging—perhaps even the Paris première. The frequenters of Bar-Des-Inquiets, occupying the rest of the stage below the bandstand, treated the musicians as the house band, acknowledging them with raised drinks or other gestures. Dis donc! (Our seats were high up in the balcony again, this time on the house left side, so I couldn’t see the band members very well—my view was cut off by the proscenium arch—so I don’t know if they gestured back, though I presume there was some quid pro quo.) This wasn’t a big part of the show—there was no accompanying dialogue, just random silent bits—but it went along with the heightened theatricality of the production (which I’ll describe more later).
As I mentioned, the look of this show was a little more elaborate than most Encores! concerts, with Beatty (retiring from the Encores! gig following Irma after designing every presentation for the concert series since the start in 1994) having conceived a scaffold-like matrix that framed the Bar-Des-Inquiets as well as the other suggested settings, which include the streets of Pigalle, Irma’s room, the Hotel Rapid, the Bridge of Caulaincourt (the poules’ stroll), a courtroom, a prison ship, Devil’s Island, a police station, and so on. Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray called Beatty’s milieu, “real and fantasy Paris all at once.” Only the seedy bistro, with its exposed brick walls decorated with French liquor ads, had set pieces (the counter, café tables and chairs); the rest of the scenes were suggested by a few select props and action. The playing area was less narrow than the one for Most Happy Fella (principally, I assume, because the bandstand needed to be so much smaller than the one for the previous show), so there was more staging and bigger dance numbers. Beatty’s set was moodily lit by Paul Miller who kept the feel of a gritty Paris quartier and one of its seamier bouges (dives). The denizens of Bar-Des-Inquiets were clothed by costume consultant Ann Hould-Ward who put Irma alone in color, a bright red dress (the color of passion . . . and hookers) with a purple, heart-shaped bodice. (One reviewer noted that these are the colors of blood and bruises—though neither figures in the plot of Irma La Douce; the mecs, even Le Boss, are decidedly unviolent and Irma’s no Suzie Wong.) The men’s duds, all shades of gray or brown, are variations on suits (not even one apache scarf or striped shirt in the lot!); they may not be chic, but these mecs are respectably dressed.
The acting and singing ensemble, all male (Irma’s the only female role), performed well, evoking the slightly sleazy underworld characters that might be the Gallic counterparts to Guys and Doll’s gamblers and lowlifes (that is, not really dangerous or even bad . . . if you overlook how they make their livings) with panache and good spirits. Even Le Boss, potentially the nastiest mec because he wants to control Irma and goes after Nestor, is less Tony Soprano (whom he resembled vaguely in Chris Sullivan’s performance) than Lippy or Slug, the two gangsters from Kiss Me Kate (in the film; they have no names in the stage version). There’s little distinction among the mecs (Sam Bolen as Frangipane, Ben Crawford as Persil-Le-Noir, Zachary James as Jojo-Les-Yeux-Sales, and Ken Krugman as Robert-Les-Diams) aside from appearance and vocal range (Bolen is a little guy with a high tenor, for instance), but they perform well together in their several group numbers (when I could overlook that amplification muddle). In the role of the Police Inspector, Stephen DeRosa looks like an accountant but manages to project a little menace even as he lets us see that he’s not terribly effective at either graft (innocent Nestor bests him, after all) or law enforcement. (I was reminded, in a comic and non-threatening vein, of Gideon, the vicious killer played by Ned Glass in Charade—a bald little man described by James Coburn’s Tex Panthollow as “even meaner ’n’ I am.”) All the men save McClure took on incidental roles, and Gets especially became a sort of utility actor, as part of the theatrical style of Irma that also encompassed Beatty’s multi-purpose unit set.
As Nestor, the naïve and straight-laced law student—he drinks milk, dis donc!—who becomes Irma’s lover and mec, Rob McClure was disappointing. His voice is fine and he did well in the musical numbers from the technical point of view, but he projected so little character aside from wide-eyed innocence that he left Jennifer Bowles essentially alone in their two-character scenes and duets. There was little romantic chemistry between the two leads, and I couldn’t help wondering what would possibly have attracted Bowles’s Irma to McClure’s Nestor to start with. McClure has gotten considerable praise for his Broadway début as Charlie Chaplin in Broadway’s Chaplin (2012), for which he received a Tony nomination, and his appearance in the 2011 Encores! presentation of Where’s Charley?—in which he also played a dual role—but I’ve never seen his work before (he worked regionally, particularly in the Philadelphia area, before his New York début), and I’m not impressed with his range. A lot of shows need a star turn, or at least a really sparkling performance, to sell them, and Irma La Douce appears to be one of those, but McClure didn’t shine here. He just seemed like a little boy (he’s a small man) trying to play a grown-up and not pulling it off, leaving a hole in the center of the production.
McClure got no help from Malcolm Gets as Bob-Le-Hotu, either. More than anything else, this Irma needed Clive Revill! (I’d add “or someone like him,” but there isn’t any such person. Revill’s the kind of performer who just dominates a scene; he’s so magnetic I can’t focus on anything or anyone else when he’s on the stage or screen. Who else can do that without being a scene-stealer or scenery-chewer, dis donc?) Gets, like McClure, received great mentions for past work (Tony nom for 2003’s Amour and an Obie in 1995 for Merrily We Roll Along and The Two Gentlemen of Verona), but like his castmate, I don’t know his work and he was so lacking in personality as Bob, I couldn’t reconcile the centrality of his role, the glue that holds this slim story together, with his performance. With a weak Nestor and a bland Bob, the whole of this Irma rests on the performance of Jennifer Bowles. It also places the entire weight of the show’s theatrical success on the silly book and the score since two of the three main performances have been nullified.
Fortunately for John Doyle and Encores!, Bowles hit mostly the right notes (as it were) with the title role. Even without much of a partner off of whom to play, her singing was evocative of character and story, full of naïve cynicism (is there such as thing as that?—she’s sort of the Gallic musical comedy counterpart of Melina Mercouri’s Ilya in Never on Sunday, a film that opened in the U.S. three days after Irma preemed on Broadway) and total amour for her mec. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times complained that Bowles’s Irma was “a bit like . . . Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm going slumming”; but that’s how the part’s written, so either you buy it or you have to reject the whole play (which is pretty much what Isherwood did). Bowles’s dancing, while energetic, expressed less character than her singing, but that may have been more the fault of Chase Brock than the actress herself.
Fortunately for Encores! and Diana and me, Irma La Douce is basically an ensemble play, with two characters spotlighted and a narrator/Greek chorus to fill in the gaps. Both Bob and Nestor join the mecs for many of the scenes and numbers, and even Irma takes part, albeit as a focal figure, in several of the group dances. Brock’s choreography is pleasingly saucy and energetic, with an especially delightful and spirited “dance of the penguins” in act two’s hallucinatory “Arctic Ballet,” with Bowles and four men in long, red beards! (Dis donc!) So Doyle could paper over the deficiencies of his individual casting choices and make the show work as a whole—although with a less sparkle than it ought to have (and otherwise would have had). The original Broadway outing got Tony noms for Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical (Peter Brook), Best Actress in a Musical (Elizabeth Searle, who won over Julie Andrews in Camelot, Carol Channing in Show Girl, and Nancy Walker in Do Re Mi), Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Clive Revill), among others; the Encores! edition wouldn’t have gotten such recognition, I don’t think. Nonetheless, for what Irma is and for what Encores! purports to present—essentially a rearview-mirror glimpse of a moment in musical-theater history—this Irma La Douce was nicely handled and presented, resulting in a completely enjoyable, if not scintillating, theater experience for me (and, from the chatter as we left the theater, for many other spectators that Friday night). I have reservations about some of Doyle’s casting decisions, but not his stage work. He probably could have gotten more distinctive and emphatic performances out of McClure and Gets (I’m guessing based on their résumés since I haven’t seen their previous work), and for that I judge his work less positively, but I also have to acknowledge that Encores! only rehearses for eight days (plus one dress rehearsal)—and Gets replaced the announced Allan Corduner on 14 April for a rehearsal period that started nine days later. Given all those circumstances, Doyle did an acceptable and competent job of mounting Irma La Douce for Encores!, though not a truly excellent interpretation that might have shown why the play caught so many people’s attention 54 years ago. That’s a shame, but not a calamity.
The press was largely negative, a consensus to which the crowd with whom I left the theater didn’t subscribe, as they vocally affirmed. (Notices bore headlines or subheads like “Musical story of Parisian prostitute suffers from stodgy direction and a convoluted plot,” “‘Irma La Duce’ production lacks zest,” “Lovely songs—and penguins—save dated musical’s plot,” “Irma La Douce Isn’t So Sweet,” and “How Was Irma la Douce Ever a Hit?!”) In the Times, Isherwood dismissed the play as “a rusty relic” which needed “a small Pernod . . . [o]r maybe a large draft of absinthe . . . to restore the zest” of the original. Although the Timesman praised the “small but hard-working cast,” particularly Bowles and McClure, who, he said, “fling themselves into” their roles “with energy to spare,” in the end, “it all feels about as fresh and tasty as a day-old croissant.” Isherwood gave a lot of credit to Berman’s instrumental ensemble, who “make a comparatively mighty and merry sound that does more than anything to bring alive the musical’s now-faded charms.” “Still,” the reviewer concluded, “‘Irma La Douce’ may be a show destined to live on in its admirers’ memories, and on recording, as opposed to a viable work for the contemporary stage.” He ended his notice with a bitterly humorous quip: “By intermission, I was ready to give myself my own cute nickname: Charles-Le-Bored-Senseless.”
The Daily News’s Joe Dziemianowicz labeled the play “so leaden that it’s ‘Irma La Dull,’” declaring that “the story is unwieldy” and adding that “flaky casting and direction . . . don’t help matters.” Dziemianowicz did concede, though, that “bouncy songs . . . and the 10-piece orchestra add jolts of ooh-la-la.” He concluded, “It takes buckets of charm and magnetism to pull off this walk on the weird and wild side,” but observed that the cast, singling out McClure and Bowles in particular, can be seen to be “working hard” to accomplish this. In her New York Post review, Elisabeth Vincentelli called the plot of Irma La Douce a “bizarre comic romance,” and objected that director Doyle “lacks the soufflé-light touch required for a show big on whimsy,” engaging in “heavy-handed staging.” Making matters worse, Vincentelli asserted, “the leads don’t click,” expressing complaints about both McClure’s and Bowles’s performances. In the end, the Post reviewer decided that “this one’s for hardcore showtune buffs.”
In am New York, Matt Windman pointed out that the play, touted 54 years ago as “hip and sexy,” just “looks sanitized by today’s standards.” The musical’s “premise . . . is relatively thin and the farcical shenanigans produce few laughs,” Windman affirmed, but added that “it has some attractive songs” despite Doyle’s “grim-looking production” which “lacks any sense of zest.” After disparaging each and every ridiculous plot element—which he made even sillier by his presentation, of course—Jesse Green wondered, “Well, perhaps the joke came off better in 1960,” in New York magazine. “I have to say this is entirely mystifying,” he continued, and declared that the musical’s book, “is possibly the most repulsive I have ever encountered and, for what it’s worth, the most bizarre.” (Just to drive home his point, Green noted that “just when you think the thing can’t get any weirder, there’s the penguin-hallucination ballet. Oh, you read that right.”) Of the play’s vaunted “frankness,” Green decided that it “now reads as a smokescreen for smarm” and that the “fablelike tone is also a dodge to keep the reeking thing at arm’s length.” The man from New York described the result, “a rare botch” by Encores! directed with “dour sensibility” by Doyle, as “part Fantasticks, part letters to Penthouse” and even asserted that “to modern sensibilities, wholly misogynistic—with a soupçon of homophobia and racism thrown in for good measure.” (I get the misogyny—it’s endemic in the mid-century plot—but I don’t see the racism and homophobia. Race and sexual preference aren’t mentioned in Irma La Douce as I remember it.) Even when it comes to the songs, which Green agreed are “lovely,” the New York review-writer added that Monnot “proceeds to drill them into your ears until you want to shoot the accordionist.” Green’s conclusion was by far the most unrelievedly negative of all the notices I read:
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 . . . .
On Broadway World, Michael Dale described Irma as an “intimate, semi-seedy musical comedy” that’s “an interesting obscurity with a lively collection of songs, a sufficient amount of cleverness and some wonderfully atmospheric orchestrations.” Despite “holes in the plot,” said Dale, the show, “as second-tier musical comedies go, . . . is quite enjoyable through to its first act curtain twist.” Act two, the BWW writer felt, suffers “from a lack of sufficient plot,” as I noted. Additionally, Dale wrote, “there is little in director John Doyle’s production that pops out at the audience” because the director “takes a whimsical farce and tones it down toward realism.” He derided the main performances with the exception of McClure’s Nestor, although the reviewer found “little chemistry displayed—romantic, comedic or otherwise—between” McClure and Bowles. The score, Dale affirmed, is the “main attraction” in Irma and in Berman’s rendition, “audiences at Irma la Douce are treated to a rare and succulent taste of 1950s Parisian authenticity.” Wondering if Irma La Douce isn’t “simply a case of some charming songs but a book that’s too hopelessly dated and contrived, not to mention too skimpy to work as more [than] a drawn-out sketch,” CurtainUp review-writer Elyse Sommer asserted that “John Doyle wasn’t the right . . . man to save this from being the invaluable staged concert series’ first stumble that I can recall.” Sommer blamed all the contributors, including a director less “adept at dishing up a light souffle than a heavy bouillabaisse,” a leading lady who’s “more gamely energetic than gamine,” and the male ensemble “who also sing and dance well, also lack Gallic panache.” The concert presentation “does have its pleasures,” noted Sommer, naming a number of the songs and dances, but essentially asserted that they’d be more enjoyable without Doyle’s “fully staged and rehearsed set-up.”
Huffington Post’s David Finkle called the musical “the feeble enterprise that apparently is all there is of Irma La Douce” and felt, “There absolutely had to be a great deal more [than Seal’s original performance], for nothing else would explain why Irma La Douce . . . could have captivated audiences, critics and Tony voters” back in 1960. During the sequence when Nestor and his alternate identity, Oscar, shift busily between roles and activities, Finkle asserted that “audience members are beginning to lose patience and/or nod off” (although I’m not sure how the reviewer gets to speak for all spectators). “What Irma La Douce really is,” Finkle believed, “is rampant idiocy, for which there may be no excuse” and “the perfectly adequate, though ultimately lackluster . . . troupe assembled [at Encores!] are unable to make anything of it.” He praised the songs, but added, “There aren’t enough of them, however, to serve as show redeemers.” Opening his Irma notice with, “It’s tragic when comedy falls flat,” David Gordon on TheaterMania lamented that “humorless direction gets in the way of earning the production the thing it most yearns for: laughs.” Gordon characterized the play as “a silly trifle of French farce” and warned, “Everything involved with this storyline should be funny, and it’s clear that we’re supposed to be laughing, but we’re not.” Blaming director Doyle, the TM reviewer observed, “Tonally, this production is confusing, taking itself way too earnestly to be funny, and yet not seriously enough for you to care about the romance.” He also criticized the romantic leads who “fail to ignite the requisite sparks” and pointed out that the rest of the acting ensemble “have turned in more memorable performances elsewhere.” Praising the physical (and instrumental) production, especially Beatty’s farewell design, Gordon concluded, “If only this staging of Irma La Douce were more worthy of the great send-off that Beatty has provided for it.”
Noting that Irma’s “story is as light as a French pastry, and has aged just about as well over the years,” Jena Tesse Fox of NY Theater Guide wrote, “As plotlines go, there’s not much there . . . and the score—while quite enjoyable—just isn’t enough to sustain the whole show on such flimsy bones.” Despite these reservations, however, Fox concluded that “the Encores! cast, under Doyle’s somewhat muddled and vague direction, gives it their all, and elevates the show beyond the sum of its parts.” Repeating her admonition that Irma hasn’t aged well, and acknowledging that it isn’t “likely to go down in history as one of the must-see Encores! revivals,” Fox felt the musical “is certainly worth catching if only for the chance to see a rarely produced Golden Age musical.” Dubbing Irma La Douce a “raucously Gallic curiosity” and “a silly, vaguely adult entertainment that’s as free of pretensions as it is inspiration,” Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray pronounced it as Encores! “most laid-back” and “certainly the weirdest” concert in the series and the most “flamboyantly flagrant way” for the project to abandon its original mission of staging “Great American Musicals in Concert.” The production, Murray noted, “revels in its chapeau-to-chaussure French-ness while doing everything possible to avoid the sauce, spice, and whimsy that usually implies” even as “it works as far as it goes, provided you’re expecting it to not go very far.” Murray insisted, though, that “there’s so little here” that in the end, “you may wonder whether you’re actually supposed to care about any of this at all.” (The Talkin’ Broadway writer continued that “all I can say is that I didn’t.”) He blamed Doyle’s “cool, broad staging” and lamented that the stars couldn’t “transcend such obstacles.” Even the songs “are pleasing in the moment,” the reviewer wrote, “but fade into the mist not long after.” In the end, Murray found, “You either buy into what the show is selling or you don’t . . .”—and he apparently didn’t.