STAGE REVIEW : Hot 'Can-Can' Kicks Up Its Heels at Orange County Arts Center

The producers of the "Can-Can" that kicked its way into the Orange County Performing Arts Center this week are--how you say?--canny.

They hired Chita Rivera. And they hired the Rockettes.

Make that canny-canny.

They knew that celebrity followers would realize that Rivera is, at last count, 55 years old. The more dedicated fans would even remember that she smashed up one of her legs in a 1986 accident.

Can she still hoof with the Rockettes, many of whom look as if they're about half her age?

She can. She does. In this revival of Cole Porter's 1953 musical, Rivera's character, nightclub owner La Mome Pistache, dances more than she did in the original production, when many of the dances were assigned instead to the soubrette, played then by Gwen Verdon. Here, the soubrette (Erica L. Paulson, squeaky-voiced but limber-limbed) is used more for slapstick comedy than for show-off dancing.

Rivera is the undisputed star, and she delivers a star performance worthy of the word--not only as a dancer but also as a smoky-voiced ballad singer. Her rooftop rendition of "I Love Paris," set against a twinkling backdrop of the Paris skyline, is lush and lovely enough to inspire thoughts of dropping everything and flying to France for the weekend.

Rivera also sings "C'est Magnifique" and "Allez-Vous En." The program promises a rendition of "I've Got You Under My Skin," but it was missing from the opening-night performance. A spokesman said that Rivera had vocal problems Tuesday, and "I've Got You Under My Skin," which wasn't part of the original score, was sacrificed as a result. It will be restored sometime during the run.

C'est la vie. Actually, the score doesn't need any artificial additives. Besides Rivera's songs, it also includes a couple of wonderful numbers for the male lead, Aristide, a judge who begins the show by wanting to shut down Pistache's club and ends up as her lover.

Played here by Ron Holgate, Aristide sings "It's All Right With Me." And before that, Holgate takes on the less familiar but more dramatic "I Am in Love" and makes us believe every word of it. Holgate's baritone is rich and smooth, and so is his performance.

This on-again, off-again love affair between Pistache and Aristide is the heart of this rarely revived show. Ostensibly, Abe Burrows' book is also concerned with the legality of that scandalous new dance, the can-can (this is 1893). It's a quaint issue in the age of "Jerker" and "The Last Temptation of Christ"; it probably seemed just as quaint when the show opened 33 years ago.

Somehow one knows that the can-can will prevail.

But if that's never in doubt, the book compensates with its romance and with some old-fashioned vaudeville-style comedy, centered around a group of would-be bohemian artists. The comedy won't have anyone rolling in the aisles, and a few of the hoo-haw sound effects that punctuate Rivera's gestures are incorrigibly silly. Nevertheless, actors Michael Connolly (as a coolly imperious critic), Larry Raiken, Don Stitt and David Ames do rouse an amiable round of chuckles.

Likewise, Alan Johnson's choreography doesn't exactly astonish us with the number of ways you can do the can-can. But the Rockettes are in fine form. The show is built so that they tease us with several brief glimpses of the can-can before they're finally allowed to cut loose. It's an appropriate touch of suspense for a show that's generally longer on polish than it is on imagination--a trait also evident in Dean Brown's lavish costumes.

Set designer James Fouchard placed his tableaux in a big, curved frame that roughly suggests the early days of art nouveau . Considering the intricacy of the set pieces themselves, Dallett Norris' staging moves with remarkable fluidity.

It appears ready for a much longer run than a week, which is all it'll get in Orange County. But it'll be back in Los Angeles for at least four weeks in December, as part of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera season at the Pantages.

Plays at 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, nightly at 8 p.m. through Sunday, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets: $16-$38; (714) 740-2000 or (213) 480-3232.

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