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Before the last elections, everyone was saying Ted Kennedy could spend the campaign in Miami and still win. Who knows? Maybe he hired a stand-in and did just that. But Mr. Anthony Graham-White, to whom the program for Silk Stockings assigns the title "Director," though he must have spent at least half the rehearsal time for the show in some place other than Cambridge, obviously had the good grace to pop back up to these stormy shores for the rehearsals of the second act.
For Silk Stockings, in a manner of speaking, is an uneven pair: during the first act, almost everybody on stage is at loose ends with himself, missing cues, timing jokes badly, willfully ignoring the orchestra, and generally making a hash of what is not a very good Cole Porter show at best. But from the very beginning of Act II, we are delightfully, tunefully, spiritedly taken in hand and tossed into that wonderful Dream Kingdom, Drumbeat and Song Land, where girls are goilier, flesh is flashier, and nonsense is all the sense we crave.
In fact, Porter's show is not at all the re-make of Garbo's wonderful film Ninotchka it pretends to be: it is really one long burlesque skit, as its title suggests, recalling the glorious days when our forefathers went to hear Milton Berle or Ed Wynn or Phil Silvers crack jokes that hurt, and pinch backsides that apparently couldn't be. Even in the generally disastrous first act of Silk Stockings--when the scenery is swaying, and the music is too soft when people are singing, and too loud behind them when they're talking--there are moments when everybody decides to drop the foolishness of the plot and let the gags do their worst, and the girls give their all. One of the reasons Act I is disappointing is that the material is simply awful: unrecognizable as acceptable music hall fare, much less as Cole Porter musical comedy. And, of course, Mr. Graham-White, for reasons into which we need not inquire, wasn't around.
Two people save Silk Stockings, and Pat Fay is one of them. Miss Fay plays Ninotcha, the orthodox Marxlste who visits Paris and melts under the lights of the city and the leer of an American she meets there; and, no kidding, from where I sat she looked every bit as lovely as Garbo. But she did more than look good: she brought onto the stage with her an air of graceful authority and confidence that almost managed to give the unhappy crew around her guts enough to say their corny lines and sing their tuneless songs. Unfortunately, as Ninotchka she is the victim of Porter's wretched book; most of the charming little conte the old movie told has been cut away, including the cultivated and charming character of her paramour (played, in the film, by Melvyn Douglas); poor Ninotchka, it appears, has been kept on to provide an excuse for calling Silk Stockings an "adaptation." And her ton is just a hell of a lot different from everybody else's ton--she is a pale blossom in a jungle of burly-cue sex.
And for some style with his sex, producer John Millet wisely called on Ciji Ware to choreograph the show. Unhappily, Act I has only one production number for Miss Ware to handle, so most of the hootchie-kootchie was left to the absent Mr. Graham-White to deal with; and his bad taste is consistent. I like as much kootch in my hootch as the next man, but there were moments when I felt myself compromised by what was going on up there. For one example, instead of having Stephen Canfield (Daniel Cheever), Ninotcha's American, merely kiss his frosty Russian, he has the two of them roll on the floor. Can you imagine Melvyn Douglas rolling on the floor? Did Mr. Cheever imagine he would have to roll on the floor? To his credit, I think he did not, for he seemed embarrassed by the sordid business.
But Betsy Howard, who plays Canfield's ex, Janice Dayton, a movie star whose name must be an anagram or code-rendering of "Jayne Mansfield," didn't seem to mind the contortions to which Graham-White set her. And most of the time, I didn't either; as someone behind me remarked, "Wow! Look at all those legs!" But there were occasions, all in Act I, when even I and my anonymous correspondent two rows back had silently to agree that some of the positions she assumed should remain in the index of the Kama Sutra.
Miss Ware, however, took all Miss Howard's talents, and those of the stunning chorus, in hand, and, in the numerous production numbers of Act II, gave us some of the finest dancing, strutting and teasing I've ever seen in a Drumbeats show--or anywhere else. The wonderful, ridiculous "Hail Bibinski" number which opens Act II, which featured a splendid Kazatzki by Betsy Wilson; the hymn to "Josephine" in which the whole great stage of Rindge Tech seems laden with pink skin; and the annual Twist Party that ends each Drumbeats show--they all left the audience, which seemed somewhat sullen during the intermission, stamping and cheering like in the old days at the Brooklyn Paramount.
The Misses Fay and Ware actually don't have to go it alone all the way; at times Cheever makes the puzzling role of Steve Canfield (half charmer, half shyster) coherent, and Ninotchka's infatuation becomes reasonably credible; and as the three Russian stooges, Ivanov, Brankov and Bibinsky (Hail Bibinsky!), Ken Howland, John Kemp and Toby Walker have their moments. They are the real burlesque comedians, and in the scenes that have received some direction, they are very funny indeed. And, as the door-man of the ritzy hotel where capitalism (and Canfield) seduce Ninotchka, Geoffrey Cowan is the only believable Parisian in the city.
The major faults are Porter's; if Ninotchka was a successful spoof of the Russians 25 years ago, a lot of its crude anti-Soviet humor (reference is made to an epic "Ode to a Tractor") is only crude today. Someone made an odd choice in selecting Silk Stockings, and perhaps they've done as well by it as anyone could. But the charm of this year's Drumbeats show is all Pat Fay's--and the excitement of the production is in its color and gaiety, not in any substance.
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