Author and composer Bryan Williams’ third incarnation of “That Lady From Maxim’s” kicked off the New York Musical Theatre Festival with a boisterous bang this past Monday night, July 8th.
Having seen the last version produced by Isle of Shoals Productions in September 2012, I can tell you this was a glitteringly well-polished younger sibling of the former. The stage was manned by an impressively talented and quite varied cast of twelve actors, and Mr. Williams himself lead the pit orchestra on piano, backed by a keyboard and reed player.
Our narrator, Etienne – the “Gentleman of Service” – played by Michael R. Buscemi, was the underappreciated butler and all-around rogue of show – the only person with direct access to the audience, whose asides kept us abreast of the convoluted goings-on of the story. His impish portrayal had its roots in vaudeville, and he appeared to relish the action on stage as much or even more than we did. Impressively, he oscillated seamlessly between the personalities of a stodgy European butler, a yuck-yuck stooge, a New York taxi driver, and a meddling leprechaun throughout the entire show. His comedic styling became essential to propel us through many an unfortunate paragraph of stark exposition.
One of two Equity actors employed for this show, Stephen Ryan, could be guessed as such by the sheer gravitas, casual technique, and military grace he brought to his part of the General. His professionalism read clearly to the audience, and the rest of the show seemed to march along to the cadence he set for it.
One of the funniest moments of the evening came to us from actress Anna Price. Her character, the exceedingly naïve Clémentine – fresh from the convent – learns from the “modern women” how to flaunt her womanly wares, and the first timid dance steps she takes in doing so had the audience rolling with laughter.
Another joy to watch was the part of the emasculate Duke, left in John Mervini’s comically capable, sweaty little hands. Never before have I witnessed such baffoonish jackassery performed with such ease of skill. Masterfully cast, Mr. Mervini makes a fiery, funny little hobbit out of the Duke. Indeed so funny was he, that when his character spoke ironically of making ladies giggle for him, a group of ladies in the back of the house actually did.
While most of the show’s characters were given gracious loads of fun things to do, a few were left behind. First was Madame Petypon, wife of our leading straight man, who was essentially in a state of mild hysteria for the entire show. This left her rather little room to grow, but actress Cecilia Vaicels showed us why actors deserve to be paid in her solo number near the very end, where she blew us away with a sudden burst of verve in “The Stranger At My Breakfast Table.”
Another forlorn character was Lieutenant Corignon, played by heartthrob Alex Mace, whose onstage chemistry with Anna Price, and then with Amara Haaksman, created a deliciously palpable tension that served as the underlying impetus for the second half of the show’s plot. But with a scant three entrances, Mr. Mace had to bring all of his theatrical experience to bear to make the most of such little stage time. It was clear in his presence and in his voice that he has the focused talent to helm a show singlehandedly, but for better or for worse, he was in and out in no time flat. Mr. Mace’s Corignon provided the only genuinely romantic side of the show, and any real exploration into that sentiment was lacking, outside the beautiful trio, “Too Many Ways To Say Goodbye.”
But the real belle of the ball was Amara Haaksman, who played the titular lady from Maxim’s. Perfectly cast, Ms. Haaksman was radiant and ravishing from start to finish. Our introduction was a wash of raw sensuality – she appeared suddenly and surprisingly in skimpy lingerie – but we soon learned that her character was tempered by a deep-seated, steely, and womanly confidence that charged the audience with magnetic attraction to her.
Her sultry voice dripped with precision and control, and her comedic timing was so on point that she made obvious jokes (which I had even heard before) sizzle and crack like the freshest of zingers. Her sly, over-the-shoulder smirks were met by creaking chairs in the audience, as its members – forgetting themselves – moved reflexively to follow her into the wings.
Ms. Haaksman commanded the show, and it was therefore fitting when the entire cast sang her praises at its close, à la “Hello Dolly!”
Regarding the creative side of the show, the use of actual French phrases sparkled incongruently and intentionally throughout the dialogue, which had the two-fold effect of reminding us of the setting in a novel way, while occasionally confusing the communication with the audience, as I don’t speak French, and context alone was not always sufficient to render the meaning.
And although I have a penchant (French: leaning or inclining) for word-based humor, a few of the word jokes were stiff and fell flatly upon the stage. The physical and situational comedy, however, were both very consistent throughout, thanks in large part to actors Michael R. Buscemi, Arthur Lundquist and Seth Blum – the three of whom tended to bear the brunt of the goofyier aspects of the show.
The play is a remake of an ancient script from 1899 penned by Frenchman Georges Feydeau, and sadly some of its senescence has been successfully recreated in “That Lady From Maxim’s.” Mr. Williams’ decision to resurrect the show with the power music brings up an interesting question for Musical Theatre: is the addition of music alone enough to justify the reincarnation of an entire show? Could there be more? Should there be?
The truth is that this comedy-of-errors farce feels just like it must’ve at the turn of the century – two century turnings ago. Instead of a re-interpretation of Feydeau’s work complete with updates, re-thinking, new approaches, and identifiable analogs to connect it with modernity, we get something more akin to a translated re-staging – plus music. To find an answer to our aesthetic question, we must ask ourselves why this story was told rather than the original. I’m not sure myself, and I suspect the reason is that Mr. Williams’ music is just too damn good for this story.
While the book leaves something to be desired, Mr. Williams’ music surpasses all expectations. He really is a fantastic composer, and in no place is this made more obvious than the new song he wrote for this version of the show, “Too Many Ways to Say Goodbye.” This song brought us to the emotional high point of the entire show, and some genuine, heart-wrenching tenderness was affected by trio singers Alex Mace, Amara Haaksman, and Anna Price. So gorgeous was this song that I’ll forgive one of the lines following it which tells us what we already know, namely that the moment “was beautiful, it was sad, it was romantic.” And how!
Williams’ special talent is for sung harmonies, which soar and dance beautifully from the deep diaphragms of his actors. His technical skill is evidenced nicely by his use of leitmotifs, which help to tell the story in songs like “Last Night,” where book and music are paired perfectly together.
Lance Hewett directed the show, and perhaps his best use of theatricality was during the song “Paris,” which took place during a staged play’s most precarious moment: a scene change. As the vocalists sung along to the haunting, hypnotic three-four Parisian themed melody, a single gobo depicted the Eiffel Tower above them. Though simple and bare, the whole effect was stunning and extremely poignant. Here Mr. Hewett made the most of his show through use of the absolute least – an effort always worthy of applause.
Ultimately “That Lady From Maxim’s” was a delightful romp, made all the more entertaining by a slew of extremely talented performers. If this was just the beginning of NYMF 2013, I can’t wait to see what’s next in store.