Upstream Theater has a reputation for doing the unusual and their newest offering, Café Chanson, conceived and directed by Ken Page, is unusual and wonderful. From the moment Bill Lenihan leads the audience from the lobby to the theater, playing "La Vie En Rose" on his accordion, you know this will be a unique experience. When I saw the list of songs I thought, “Oh, this is a cabaret.” But it isn’t, it is something else entirely, a lyrical, smoky, memory play told in rhyme and song. The actors don’t sing as much as they continue the story with the music.
There is so much to like in this play. The audience is transported back to World War II Paris and we are part of the play, which happens all around us. From Patrick Huber’s café seating and sparkling chandeliers, to Teresa Doggett’s lovely costumes, to the wonderful musicians led by Henry Palkes, we are there, as the Old Soldier is there. The basic plot is an Old Soldier who dies and “crosses over” to a time and a place where he was truly happy. While he is in this space, he must confront his ghosts and come to terms with mistakes he made when young, which have permeated the rest of his life. It is only after realizing his mistakes that he can truly go “home.”
The last time I saw John Flack he was dressed in a nun’s habit for his brilliant performance in The Divine Sister. I mention this because his Old Soldier is so unlike his Mother Superior and that speaks beautifully to his craft. Flack embodies his characters and is delightful to watch. So too is J. Samuel Davis as the Narrator; even though his role is to tell the Old Soldier’s story, by the end we know his as well. In a play with broadly stroked characters, Flack and Davis give us depth and detail.
In the role of The Woman, Gia Grazia Valenti charms with her spicy sensuality. She just looks so French, black hair and white skin and her lanky, lithe, satin-clad frame, with which she overwhelms Justin Ivan Brown’s Young Soldier, who is boyish and enthusiastic. The rest of the cast make up Brown’s other lovers, Willena Vaughn as Madame, Antonio Rodriguez as The Man and Elizabeth Birkenmeier as Mademoiselle. Rodriguez has great fun in his role, especially in a number created for him by Page and Palkes.
I do question a central motivation of the play. If the Young Soldier were the type of man with whom strangers fall madly in love upon meeting, why does that character trait not translate to his life after the war? Is it just the magic of Paris? The uncertainty of war? Is it his fresh, American boyishness to which they are drawn? All four of his lovers give him their hearts, and he is unable to return that love, or find it again once he goes home. Once we experience that kind of love, shouldn’t it transform us and make it more likely we will find it again?
On opening night the sound levels were a bit uneven, or the younger actors were depending too much on their microphones, but several were a bit hard to understand in their songs. This did not, however, diminish my pleasure and I was enchanted by this lovely piece of theater. Café Chanson continues through January 27th at the Kranzberg Arts Center in Mid-town.