Spunk!

Sex, salvation, the French and the blues

In his notes for Paramour, director Joseph Hardy claims the show is the first Jean Anouilh play adapted to the musical stage. That's surprising. Anouilh, who died in 1987, is France's most popular 20th-century playwright, a prolific artist who experimented with a range of styles, from myth and history to light romantic comedies and elaborately complicated fantasies. All of his work glitters with wit, master craftsmanship, lyricism and thinly veiled social criticism. Think of him as a less intellectually inclined George Bernard Shaw.

Paramour's source material, The Waltz of the Toreadors, was written in 1952. It's the best example of Anouilh's pieces grincantes plays, which were jarring, grating works that featured morally despicable and irritating characters. The challenge for those producing the material is to balance the selfish conceits of these broadly written characters against the laughter drawn from their ridiculous situations.

Fortunately, Joe Masterhoff and Howard Marren's very enjoyable musical bastardization accomplishes this. It may lack the nasty bite of Anouilh's seminal investigation into social mores, but it still charms, helped by Hardy's immaculate production, which is staged on Ralph Funicello's ravishing set.

Len Cariou is excellent as General St. Pe, Anouilh's salacious protagonist, who is saddled with an apparently paralyzed wife, Madame St. Pe (Melissa Hart), and his mistress, Angelique (Amanda Naughton), who, in 18 years, he's never bedded. Unable to resolve the romantic dilemma, the general finds his life upended when his wife suddenly tells him that she's been unfaithful over the years. Meanwhile, Angelique falls for the general's secretary, Gaston (Joel Carlton). And the farce is on.

It's tempting to appreciate Paramour as a charming, good-looking musical about a doddering old guy and blossoming young love. But that doesn't give Anouilh-or this show-enough credit. General St. Pe is terrified of growing old and impotent. He has led a life of conquest on the battlefield and in the bed chamber; now he feels trapped in the cross hairs of old age, chained to a shrewish wife who's more than a touch insane. So he loses himself in the past and the illusion that he's conducting a torrid love affair with a woman he has never slept with.

What's most interesting about the general, though, is this: although his fanciful notions of maintaining his youthful vigor nearly ruin his family, he never relents. Though admonished by other characters to grow up and get old and docile, the show's final image is of his hand coyly creeping down to the plump buttock of his newest servant. He's incorrigible, but the poisoned thrust of Anouilh's final dagger is that this is one character who steadfastly refuses to go gently into that senile night. He'll go out the way he came in-full of lust, piss and vinegar. It may not be the most mature way to deal with life, but it's his way.

An aging French general's pining for lost youth doesn't mean much compared to the monumental struggle of an entire race under the yokes of slavery and racism. Yet the same sense of maintaining one's life force amid harsh reality pulses through the musical revue It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues. This is a wholly entertaining, sinewy production that features an excellent cast, some great music and plenty of steam.

There's also plenty of smarts, not a common ingredient in most musical revues. The intellectual content comes from the songs themselves. A three-chord, eight-bar blues song may not pack the musical sophistication of a John Coltrane sax solo, but the blues is oral history, a fact this revue illustrates perfectly. From its opening image of shadowy characters taking their seats to the sounds of African tribal drumming and chanting as the diagram of a slave ship appears on the back wall, it's clear that this is not an homage to a particular type of music, as much as it is an homage to the people who lived through it.

We begin with traditional blues standards, basically Negro spirituals played to a slow, murky rhythm that eventually blooms into that distinctive blues backbeat. Things grow more interesting when co-creator Ron Taylor, a mountain of a man, takes the stage and delivers "Blues Man." Laden with sexual innuendo and sinister intent, it's the first example that the music that evolved from Negro spirituals embraced the concerns of the flesh.

The first act takes the audience along an impressive array of blues stops, obscure tunes and traditional standards blending with the Delta blues of Robert Johnson and other mostly acoustic performers. The second act features a full-on electric blues band backing up the seven featured performers on everything from Willie Dixon's "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man" and John Lee Hooker's "Crawlin' King Snake" to Leadbelly's "Good Night Irene" and Carter Calvert's "Fever." Along the way, there are brief detours showing the blues' pervasive influence on non-black performers, including Hank Williams Sr. and Patsy Cline.

What's most interesting about the songs and the performances is how most deal with either sex or salvation. If it's not Taylor opening the back door for the devil, it's Eloise Law seductively suggesting just how her man rocks her in "My Man Rocks Me" or Carter Calvert (the lone Anglo singer) deciding the straight life is no life for her in "Now I'm Gonna Be Bad."

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