Manbites Dog Theater
703 Foster St., Durham
www.manbitesdogtheater.org Through April 4
Treachery awaits in cabarets, my friends.
The lights go out in some dodgy dive as a chanteuse in silk sidles up to a microphone. You hear a few well-chosen notes as a piano, guitar and accordion set up a tasteful musical frame in the dark. A sudden spotlight finds the singer’s captivating face as she incants the deceptively tender lyrics of what Heinrich Heine, a man who once stood in your shoes, called “those old wicked songs … full of my love and sorrow past.”
The songs of our first or last true loves often remainas triggerslong after their subjects have gone, and the denizens of cabaret, ruthlessly skilled at simulating and manipulating the passions, take professional pride and profit in pulling those triggers.
So yes, in Paris 76, an original cabaret at Manbites Dog Theater, there is a predatory element in the disarming sentiments of “Close Your Eyes,” an homage by Alla Lucescu (Dana Marks) to 1930s torch singer Ruth Etting. As the rest of the cast waves hello in the opening showcase, be advised: They’re also sizing you up as a mark. Before night’s end, drinks will be cadged, laps will be sat on, and song dedications will be hurled across any remaining fragments of the fourth wall.
Germain Choffart amuses as a half-man/half-woman called Claude/Claudette on the Josephine Baker tribute to duality, “J’ai Deux Amours (I Have Two Loves),” before interrogating audience members with a series of tongue-twisters en français. Betye Knight (Hazel Edmond), dressed for mystery by costumer Noelle Lai, dramatically intones Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” before dressing down selected customers in the vintage calypso of “Don’t Touch My Tomatoes.” The jaded, ribald and wolf-like Wladyslawa Wladzia Walter (Madeleine Pabis) shares the sexual wit and wisdom of Sophie Tucker before a marked change in mood for “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes.”
Chester Starr (Liam O’Neill) and Lucescu are clearly the designated romantic leads, whose petty vanities and jealousies create a sticking point during renditions of “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “Tonight You Belong to Me.” And after a comic turn in tap shoes, Esmeralda Rhone (Samantha Rahn) gives one of the best performances of her young career in a truly unsettling version of Helen Kane’s 1928 song “I Wanna Be Loved by You.”
The louche Shelton Lambert (Shelby Hahn) descends into his cups as third-rate mentalist Sha Bi. Mr. Delicious (Mick Foley) punctuates the proceedings with surreal old-time radio jingles. Comedian Jacques Dirigible (Ian Bowater) deconstructs an old stand-up gag, and the demure Lorna (Erin Bell) discloses something surprising to Louis Landry’s wise-guy orchestra. It’s a night of emotional ambushes, played mostly for laughs.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Paris in the Piedmont”