By: Samuel L. Leiter
June 15, 2018: I have a hunch that most knowledgeable New York theatregoers of a certain age, if asked to name the top French cabaret singers (i.e., chanteuses) of the 1930s and 1940s, would come up with such stars as Edith Piaf, Mistinguett, Josephine Baker, Arletty, and perhaps, among others, Lucienne Boyer, Rina Ketty, and Fréhel. One name that might not often be dropped, despite her once considerable fame, is that of Suzy Solidor (1900-1983), the subject of All I Want Is One Night, a humdrum musical biodrama, performed at 59E59 Theaters with most of the audience at tiny cabaret tables equipped with battery-operated candles.
British singer-actress Jessica Walker is the author and star of this blissfully brief excursion into the bisexual Solidor’s hothouse of lesbian lovers, renowned portrait painters, and performances at La Vie Parisienne, Solidor’s iconic Paris cabaret. Her show comes to us courtesy of the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, where it began under Sarah Frankcom’s direction (the “company” is credited for “revival direction”).
With her hair dyed blond and clipped short in a boyish style resembling Solidor’s, and dressed in a silver evening gown, Walker bears a sufficiently close physical resemblance to the original. However, Walker’s voice is much closer to a soprano’s than to the low, richly throbbing sound for which Solidor was known, which can be heard by a quick trip to the Internet. In fact, Walker’s singing and manner, while polished and expressive, don’t come close to embodying the Gallic charm one expects from such an artiste.
One problem is the musical limitation of a single accompanist, Joseph Atkins. He mostly plays the piano but sometimes the accordion or synthesizer; the largely piano-only approach effectively kills the music’s French personality. Another obstacle to making us feel like sophisticated Parisians is Walker’s having translated the lyrics into English (except for “Lily Marlene,” sung in French and German). Wouldn’t it have been better to use surtitles and keep the originals intact?
Solidor’s story is bookended by scenes set in the antiques shop she ran, during her senior years, in Haut de Cagnes, on the Côte d’Azur, where she cross-dresses as an admiral. The tale, however, is not particularly unusual for a daring French celebrity of her time. It includes charges she faced for collaborating with the Nazis—something of which other French stars also were accused—as well as the tired trope of the aging diva’s depression about her fading looks.
Her sexual proclivities—Rachel Austin plays her lover, Daisy, and her potentially available housemaid, Giselle—also have little shock value. On the other hand, Solidor’s repute as “the most painted woman in the world,” with hundreds of portraits by world-famous artists, among them Picasso, Bacon, and Braque, not to mention photographer Man Ray, has some dramatic value, Eight reproductions hanging upstage form the show’s main design element.
Perhaps the most famous portrait, a nude by Tamara de Lempicka, gets its moment, as does Lempicka herself, played by Alexandra Mathie (whose several other roles include both men and butch women). But the loosely connected script, which intermingles biographical material within the context of a cabaret show (life is a cabaret, old chum), with action occurring among the tables as well as on the small stage, is too discombobulated to stir much deep interest.
Nor is Solidor’s repertoire one with which most non-French audiences will feel familiar. “Lily Marlene” is the best known, but mainly because of Lale Andersen’s original and later renditions by Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn, and many others. While pleasant enough, none of the sometimes risqué songs, a number of which touch on the sea and sex, are as enthralling as, for example, would be almost any song plucked at random from Piaf’s songbook. The eight numbers, all but one of which can be heard on YouTube in their original recordings, include “Les Filles de St. Malo,” “Ouvre,” “Je ne veux qu’une Nuit” (the title song), “Escale,” “Lily Marlene,” “Qu’on est Bien,” and “La Chanson de la Belle Pirate.”
All I Want Is One Night is the third Jessica Walker cabaret-style show I’ve seen at 59E59. The best was the first, The Girl I Left behind Me, in 2013, which was about famous cross-dressing British and American women entertainers. In 2014, she performed Pat Kirkwood Is Angry, a middling piece about a now little-known British actress-singer. The downward trend continues with this show that, even at 65 minutes, makes you think that all you want is for it to end.
All I Want Is One Night
59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through July 1
Photography: Carol Rosegg