City Center Encores! winds up its 21st season — which was highlighted by a droll Little Me and a superb Most Happy Fella — with the little-seen Irma La Douce. This was one of those rare French musicals that made it overseas. The small-scale 1956 Paris production led to an anglicized London version in 1958, which then traveled to Broadway in 1960, augmented by exciting American choreography. Irma La Douce was a major hit in all three countries, quickly spreading to five continents. (A big-screen adaptation came in 1963 from Billy Wilder, although the score was relegated to background music.) Fifty-odd years later, the charms of Irma — the first non-American musical to be staged by Encores! — are not so readily apparent.
The show calls, first and foremost, for a powerhouse dancer-singer-comedienne in the title role. Elizabeth Seal, who played it in London and New York, was key to the show's success; something like a combination of Audrey Hepburn and Gwen Verdon, Seal instantly captivated audiences and helped make the story — about a Montmartre streetwalker with a heart of gold — palatable. (Seal's performance was so stunning that she easily took that year's Tony Award over Julie Andrews in Camelot; she was the first non-"star" to win a Tony in a starring role and the first foreign-born actress to win the musical award.)
At Encores, the hard-to-fill role is played by Jennifer Bowles, currently a replacement in Matilda the Musical (as The Acrobat and the understudy for Miss Honey). She is joined by Rob McClure — who charmed audiences in Chaplin, the Encores! Where's Charley? and is the leading man of the forthcoming Honeymoon in Vegas — as the naive young lawyer who becomes Irma's protector. Malcolm Gets (Amour) plays the third starring role, as the friendly barkeep. John Doyle (Sweeney Todd), who provided the adaptation, also directs, while Chase Brock (Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark) choreographs. Encores! music director Rob Berman leads the orchestra in the delightful ten-piece bal musette orchestrations featuring accordion, two trombones and a tinny upright piano. The orchestra best captures the flavor of the show, with McClure going all out as the hapless hero.
Irma started as a cabaret musical from Marguerite Monnot, who had conquered the French music world with her songs written for Edith Piaf. ("The Poor People of Paris" and "Milord" are still instantly recognizable.) With Irma, she became one of the first woman composers to reach Broadway with a hit; the show was also the first French musical to reach New York since the days of Offenbach. Monnot died of a burst appendix in 1961, during the Broadway run of the show. The French book and lyrics by Alexandre Breffort were translated into English by the team who had just written the satirical 1958 West End musical Expresso Bongo: Julian More, David Heneker (who later wrote Half a Sixpence) and Monty Norman. Theatregoers who remember David Merrick's 1960 Irma still talk about the show's breezy insouciance; the inventive direction from Peter Brook in his pre-Royal Shakespeare Company days; the knockout dances by Onna White; the winning performance of Clive Revill as the friendly raconteur who narrates the story; and most especially Elizabeth Seal. Encores! offers a rare chance to see Irma and to hear its bubbly score, but little of the original magic translates.