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STAGE REVIEW : Chita Rivera Gives ‘Can-Can’ Its Kick

Times Theater Critic

From the evidence at the Pantages Theatre, where “Can-Can” opened Tuesday night, Chita Rivera can still kick higher and sing lower than anybody else in the business.

Rivera plays a Montmartre dance hall owner who is not above joining into the festivities from time to time, in fact quite a lot of the time.

When she does join in, Rivera doesn’t show the kids how she used to do it. She shows them how she does it. If there are things that she chooses not to do, that doesn’t mean she couldn’t; they just don’t work in the number.

Rivera not only shows dance authority, she suggests power in reserve. This is one smart, brave performer. Who would guess that she has had to put herself together after a serious auto accident in New York? Not me.

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Rivera is also nicely cast in the show, playing a rowdy lady who knows what is what in Paris, but who has also observed that now and then a nice man does come along--here, James Luisi, playing a puritanical judge who wants to put her out of business.

If this sounds like “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” you should know that “Can-Can’s” girls are “laundresses” who merely come to the dance hall every night to let off a little steam. This is a Cole Porter musical, circa 1953, when “naughty-but-nice” still sold tickets.

It seems a very tiresome convention now. “Can-Can” is not a show that has aged well. Perhaps it wasn’t that much fun even in ’53. (Certainly Porter, from George Eels’ biography, didn’t look back on it with any affection.) At the Pantages, it all seems pretty pointless, except for Rivera. Garter belts and ooo-la-la in 1988?

You know this revival is in trouble when the orchestra strikes up “C’est Magnifique” and nobody applauds. It’s not that older people in the audience don’t remember some of these songs--"I Love Paris,” “It’s All Right With Me"--but they don’t remember them as a theatrical score, the way they do the songs from “Kiss Me Kate” or “Anything Goes.”

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Probably because the songs aren’t attached to anything. “Can-Can’s” book (this seems to be the original, by Abe Burrows) is nonsense, without being wonderful nonsense: maybe three good jokes. The characters aren’t particularly funny and aren’t particularly likable. The plot goes just where it figured to go.

All that’s left is atmosphere. A sumptuous revival of “Can-Can” might work, one that was heavy on Belle Epoque decor and that was finicky about its musical arrangements. We get a hint of blue-hour romance in the “I Love Paris” number, with the lights of the city sparkling in the background. But in general it’s your standard road-show musical, muslin where silk is needed.

The performers are also standardized. Luisi--the agreeably dumbfounded leading man. Erica L. Paulson--the cute, squeaky-voiced soubrette. Larry Raiken--the low comic with the Bulgarian accent. The Rockettes--the Rockettes. Not all of them, only 13 of them. I said it was a road show.

Plays Mondays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Tickets $17-$35. (213) 410-102 or (714) 634-1300. ‘CAN-CAN’

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Cole Porter’s 1953 musical, at the Pantages Theatre. Book Abe Burrows. Director Dallett Norris. Musical director Hampton F. King, Jr. Choreographer Alan Johnson. Scenic design James Fouchard. Costumes Dean Brown. Lighting Brian MacDevitt. Sound Craig Cassidy. Orchestral arrangements David Siegel, Daniel Troob, Hampton F. King, Jr. Dances arranged by Mark Hummel. Conductor Mark Lipman. Production Dale Kaufman. With Chita Rivera, Erica L. Paulsen, Jaquey Maltby, Lillian Colon, Dominique Decaudain, Vicki Hickerson, Ginny Hounsell, Sonya Marie Kerwin, Alyson Lang, Lori McMacken, Mary McNamara, Nancy Lyn Miller, Kerrie Pearsall, Kim Leslie Schwab, Terry Spano, Larry Raiken, Don Stitt, David Ames, Jack Kyrieleison, Michael Connolly, Lames Luisi, J. Lee Flynn, Bill Burns, Cris Herrera.


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