Saturday, September 20, 2014

69. Review of ROCOCO ROUGE (September 19, 2014)


The promotional package for ROCOCO ROUGE, the latest “rouge” offering from artistic director Austin McCormick and his Company XIV (pronounced by its letters rather than as the number 14), invites you to “a titillating evening of decadent divertissement, featuring opera divas, can-can girls, dancing boys, live music, circus, ballet, burlesque, and much more. Sip a delicious cocktail whilst you experience a thrillingly unique fusion of nightlife and theatre.” While neither especially titillating nor decadent, the show delivers on all the other counts, and offers a pleasant enough divertissement for theatregoers seeking pure escapism. Its immediate predecessor, last year’s NUTCRACKER ROUGE, which received a Drama Desk nomination as a Unique Theatrical Experience, had the benefit, minimal as it was, of its source, the NUTCRACKER SUITE, to tie its disparate parts together and provide continuity for those familiar with the story. No such luck with ROCOCO ROUGE, which, while it uses several similar performance routines, is merely a succession of songs, acrobatic acts, and dance numbers, connected by the singing and patter of the very talented mistress of ceremonies, Shelly Watson.
The show is done cabaret style in an unnamed downstairs venue at 428 Lafayette Street, located in the Colonnades, that row of neoclassical, early 1830s buildings directly across from the Public Theatre. The front room cum lobby has a bar where you can have a drink before entering the 100-seat theatre at the rear. Even if you aren’t thirsty when you arrive, you’ll have an opportunity to order from a pretty cocktail waitress at your table, where you’ll likely be seated with strangers. (Some patrons sit on small love seats.) And if your throat remains parched, not to worry, since the show takes two thirst-quenching intermissions. Truthfully, the only need for these “short breaks,” as Ms. Watson calls them, is to sell more drinks; their downside is 1) they stretch the event out to nearly two hours (half an hour longer than advertised), and 2) the intermission music (much of it jazz recordings featuring classical stylists like Ella Fitzgerald and Eartha Kitt) is so loud it’s like being at a wedding or bar mitzvah where you have to scream to have anything like a conversation.

Shelly Watson (center) and company. Photo: Phillip Van Nostrand.
Hanging on one of the theatre’s black walls is a huge Moulin Rouge poster of slinky black chorus girl leader Lisette Malidor in nude silhouette. The stage curtain itself combines colored images of bewigged personages from the time of France’s Louis XIV, from whose dissolute late 18th-century reign the company takes its inspiration, combined with a black and white, painted panorama of 19th-century French chorus girls. Among these charming young women, some of them doing the can can, are a few who think little of displaying their furry nether regions. For shame. Actually, this curtain, which also includes a nude man lying on his back with his equipment in the hand of one of the naughty can can girls, is perhaps the most erotic thing in ROCOCO ROUGE; Ms. Watson promises “debauchery and nakedity” but the results are limp in both zones.

Courtney Giannone (standing) and company. Photo: Phillip Van Nostrand.
Zane Pihlstrom’s minimalist set is mainly two Austrian curtains, one upstage, one down, lit with conventionally smoky, mood-making effects by Jeannette Yew. Several small, standing, crystal chandelier-light lamps line the downstage area, and a spiral staircase is located up left. Mr. Pihlstrom’s costumes continue the company tradition of eroticizing 18th-century high fashion by combining familiar elements but stripping them down to reveal as much flesh as possible. For those first encountering the company’s work they’ll be surprising; if you’ve seen an earlier show, like NUTCRACKER ROUGE, however, the novelty will be gone.

Davon Rainey, Shelly Watson. Photo: Phillip Van Nostrand.
Ms. Watson, who brings to mind a combination of Bette Midler and Mae West, is a roly-poly presence bedecked in a series of truly fanciful wigs and miniskirted costumes consisting of imaginatively adorned corsets, bustiers, and panniers. She makes an excellent female version of the Emcee made famous in the musical CABARET, but, despite her satirically insinuating manner, her lines are neither especially off-color nor funny. More charismatic attitude than scintillating wit, she nevertheless capably anchors the production as she wanders through the audience, mic in hand, with her gently provocative comic commentary and very impressive singing, which shifts effortlessly from operatic arias (in French and Italian) to contemporary hip-hop and jazz. As expected, several ringside spectators get her close-up treatment (I was referred to as a “silver-haired devil” as she put an arm around me), and I thank the gods she didn’t plant her lipstick on my balding pate, as they do to shiny-headed plutocrats in those old movie nightclub scenes.
Katrina Cunningham. Photo: Phillip Van Nostrand.
The show itself is a succession of familiar routines, newly staged and choreographed by Mr. McCormick, but not especially original, nor particularly distinct from one another. The dance numbers feature several attractive women and two men, all of them in scanty costumes showing lots of butt flesh, but there’s no actual nudity. The men wear sequined codpieces and the few women who bare their breasts do so only with pasties stuck firmly in place. G-strings dominate and, as usual, will cause the wedgie-conscious to wonder how people can wear those things without constantly tugging at them. The choreography, much of it set to classical operatic arias, is filled with writhing, twisting, thrusting movements that express feelings but don’t particularly reflect the lyrics (at least not those in English); aside from the sight of lightly clad, lithe, and muscular young bodies behaving in the throes of presumed passion or jealousy or whatnot, the dances are in no way salacious, more’s the pity. And since the company’s two male dancers (Davon Rainey and Steven Trumon Gray), for all their low body fat and trim physiques, are usually dressed in women’s corsets, it may require special tastes to appreciate their sensual appeal.

Laura Careless. Photo: Phillip Van Nostrand.
The dancers are all quite capable of performing Mr. McCormick’s “baroque choreography,” as the company calls it, a combination of classical ballet and contemporary jazz dancing, and there’s even a semi-flamenco piece, based on “Habanera” from CARMEN, performed by Mr. Rainey, who also does a bizarrely incongruous dance, wearing flaming drag, with a red sequined gown and 1920’s style headpiece, while Ms. Watson belts “Is That All There Is?”  It might be noted that the slender Mr. Rainey, who has a tiny waist any figure-conscious woman might envy, bears a striking resemblance to Lisette Malidor, whose poster I mentioned earlier.

ROCOCO ROUGE company. Photo: Phillip Van Nostrand.

The dances include pas de deux and solos (Laura Careless’s is a standout) as well as solo songs, the two principal singers (apart from Ms. Watson) being the lovely brunette Brett Umlauf and the voluptuous Katrina Cunningham, whose renditions of pop tunes, such as Beyoncé’s “Drunken Love” and Brittany Spears’s “Toxic” (titles my theatre companion provided), have a Norah Jones vibe; I admit, however, to having had trouble making out the slurred lyrics. Allison Ulrich proves a deft aerialist on the hanging hoop, especially when she’s paired with Mr. Gray and they have to perform very close to the nearby lighting instruments. She's also no slouch when it comes to pole dancing. Courtney Giannone performs on the cyr wheel, but why she’s been asked to hide her arresting looks by wearing not only an unflattering hairdo but a drawn-on mustache is anybody’s guess. Rob Mastrianni is the talented guitarist who accompanies several numbers.
ROCOCO ROUGE isn’t up to the standards of NUTCRACKER ROUGE, which included several of the same artists on and offstage. It needs something other than atmosphere to unify its parts, and the inclusion of some more daringly erotic material would go a long way to bringing the necessary rouge to audiences’ cheeks.