It’s soothing to find that even now, fourteen years after their country dissolved, and in the midst of our current depredations, the Soviets are still good for a laugh. Their bureaucracy, their casual executions, their parades: Comedy this dark never expires. Consider the Soviet agent who has learned, years after the fact, that Prokofiev has died.
“You didn’t know Prokofiev is dead?” asks a comrade, disbelieving.
“I didn’t even know he’d been arrested,” he replies.
The exchange draws one of the biggest laughs in the staged concert revival of Silk Stockings, running this month at Florence Gould Hall. Half a century ago, Cole Porter and the husband-wife librettist team of George S. Kaufman and Leueen MacGrath were commissioned to adapt and update the Garbo vehicle Ninotchka for the musical stage. In those fraught early years of the Cold War, they would demonstrate the superiority of the American way of life by sending up the Reds in song. Also by making a pile of money on Broadway.
Despite succeeding on both counts, the show has been seen only rarely since. So it was that Ian Marshall Fisher, the director of “Lost Musicals”—the London predecessor of our “Encores!” series—decided to stage this show about a Soviet agent who travels to Paris in search of a wayward composer, only to fall for the composer’s American agent (in the 10-percenter sense).
Unlike “Encores!,” Fisher makes a point of not tampering with the shows he excavates. The cast, dressed in eveningwear and with scripts in hand, delivers what can be regarded as the definitive text, accompanied by a piano. Scrupulous authenticity breaks down, however, with the cast itself. Some of the actors can hit Porter’s notes, and some can strike Kaufman & Co.’s comic bull’s-eyes, but precious few can do both.
This has always been a vexed show, onstage and off. Before opening night of the original production, producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin fired the ailing Kaufman and his wife, retaining Abe Burrows to finish the script. (Kaufman was, as ever, philosophical: “When I die, I want to be cremated, and have my ashes thrown in Ernie Martin’s face.”) In the current production, without a consistently terrific cast and lightning pace, the jokes about Siberia and odes to tractors still land, but plenty else seems stale. A song limning the glories of stereophonic sound comes to mind, as does this Porter addition to the literature of female empowerment: “Without love, what is a woman? / A zero in the void.”
At last week’s premiere, the most reliably delightful part of the show preceded the performance: Fisher conducted an onstage interview with Anne Kaufman Schneider, the keeper of her father’s work, not to mention his exquisite sense of timing. After delivering a couple of dry punch lines, and needling Fisher for not giving her the questions beforehand, she drew one of the night’s biggest laughs when asked how the audience could spot what Burrows had contributed to the dialogue: “Any of the jokes that don’t work.” The others may wobble, but here is one unerring purveyor of the Kaufman wit, anyway.