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Theatre in Review: All I Want is One Night (59E59)

Jessica Walker. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Having turned up in recent years at 59E59 to hold forth about the tradition of male impersonators in the English music hall ("The Girl I Left Behind Me") and the travails of a certain postwar West End star (Pat Kirkwood is Angry), Jessica Walker is back, this time to school us in the life of Suzy Solidor. Even by the standards of the women chronicled in Walker's previous entertainments, Solidor was a handful. Fleeing an unhappy childhood in Brittany, at seventeen she drove an ambulance in World War I before making her way to Paris, where a wealthy lady antiques dealer added her to her personal collection. Next came a career as a model, parading up and down the beach at Deauville in bizarre bathing suits. In 1932, she opened a nightclub with herself as the star, presiding over a gay demimonde with a repertory of frankly erotic, openly lesbian songs. She drew her lovers from both sexes -- the women for pleasure and the men for their cash assets. The club stayed open during the Occupation, a fact that did not endear her to her fellow citizens. (Walker thinks Solidor was part of the Resistance; if so, it did little to shield her from being branded a collaborator.) Her main ambition was to be the most painted woman in the world, and a retinue of worthies lined up to oblige her, including Jean Cocteau, Francis Bacon, Man Ray, and Tamara de Lempicka; the last became one of her many lovers. It was a wild, glittering, celebrity-packed ride, and if she ended up in the South of France bitter, overweight, dressing like a naval officer (and insisting she be called "admiral"), and performing for audiences who longer showed up -- well, the price of being a hellion is rarely cheap.

Walker has envisioned All I Want is One Night as a kind of cabaret unfolding in the mind of the elderly Solidor, combining some of her signature songs with a portfolio of scenes from her life, delivered in no particular order. It's a tall order for a show running little more than an hour, and it results in an entertainment that is uneasily stranded between nightclub act and full-out biographic drama. The dialogue scenes play like a highlight reel from a vintage film melodrama -- all passionate kisses, flagrant infidelities, guns waved around menacingly, and blatant single entendres. Think of a Bette Davis picture with an all-female cast, and you've got the idea.

None of this convinces, and in its weakest moments, All I Want is One Night strains to maintain a steamy atmosphere of intrigue. But when the commanding Walker, with her silvery soprano, takes the stage, dressed like a Greek goddess who has condescended to come to earth and teach us humans a thing or two, all is well, indeed. Solidor specialized in two types of songs: Of her sea-themed numbers, "Les Filles de St. Malo" carries the authentic tang of salty breezes, as does "Escale," by Marguerite Monnot, who provided Édith Piaf with many of her classics. Of the more suggestive accounts of female desire, "Ouvre," which leaves nothing to the imagination, and the title tune are memorable offerings. (Walker translated the lyrics.) For anyone interested in the history of international cabaret, this is a golden opportunity to sample what was popular in France between the wars.

The show turns 59E59's Theatre B into a nightclub, capably turned into a red-light district by Kate Ashton's lighting. Walker is ably supported by Rachel Austin as Daisy, the longtime lover whom Solidor abused yet with whom she is interred, and Alexandra Mathie, who takes on several roles, most notably Tamara de Lempicka, who can't quite leave Solidor alone, and as the Swedish artist Bengt Lindström, who shows up to paint Solidor in decline.

Someday there may be a complete drama about Solidor, and it will probably be formidable, as the French say...In the meantime, All I Want is One Night has some attractively sexy and melancholy songs delivered by a singer who is a mistress of the form. The rest of it is the raw material for a play yet to be written. -- David Barbour

(14 June 2018)

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