Story: A World War II veteran is nearing the end of his life. He struggles feebly to a doorway and painfully passes through it. On the other side, he meets a young man, a soldier who served in a Negro division within the U.S. Army in Paris. The older soldier gradually becomes younger as he joins his long-lost pal at the Café Chanson, a night spot they had frequented during the war decades before.
Over the course of the evening, the old soldier is reacquainted with four people who were drawn to him for comfort and affection at that time: Madame, a celebrated chanteuse who had an affair with him; Mademoiselle, a young singer who fell in love with him; a lady of the night, who shared her bed and adventurous spirit; and a waiter at the café, a lad given to wearing makeup and carrying a torch for the young GI.
The old man sees a younger version of himself carousing and cavorting with these Parisians while his fellow soldier observes and remarks upon the events and upon the old man’s life. The drinks are plentiful and the music is festive, but there’s a price to be paid for visiting the Café Chanson.
Highlights: Artistic director Philip Boehm’s Upstream Theater specializes in finding works that “move you, and move you to think.” That’s certainly the case with this enthralling and poignant, one-act piece conceived, written and directed by Ken Page, one of St. Louis’ best-known and successful performers.
Page is a commanding presence on the stage, whether at The Muny, on Broadway or elsewhere. Here, though, he’s created an absorbing and compelling look at one man’s rueful reflections on his life as he makes a final circle around the tiny stage and intimate space at this mythical and mysterious cabaret. With an accomplished cast and the notable assistance of pianist Henry Palkes and his tight little combo, Café Chanson offers an evening full of wistful enchantment.
Other Info: The world premiere of Café Chanson features some beautiful and affecting performances as well as a litany of French tunes that Page has assembled to pay tribute to a variety of French singers and musicians such as Charles Aznavour, Edith Piaf, Eric Blau and Jacques Brel, with the spirit of American expatriate Josephine Baker omnipresent.
There are jaunty numbers such as La Boheme and melancholy tunes like If You Go Away and Yesterday When I Was Young. Regardless of their tempo, they’re all delivered in magnificent style, many of them half spoken for their poetry as well as sung for their charming melodies. Poetry is the medium most often preferred by Page, in fact, for delivering dialogue and exposition, and it’s poetry that handsomely fits the spirit of this work, although the deletion of a ballad of a ballad or two might avoid the occasional lull that results.
The stellar cast includes John Flack as the lonely old GI who comes face-to-face with long-lost loves he might have taken more seriously. J. Samuel Davis is proper and insightful as his dutiful guide and narrator of his story, while Justin Ivan Brown smoothly sketches a portrait of the soldier as a young man.
Willena Vaughn, Elizabeth Birkenmeier and Gia Grazia Valenti all convey the attributes and attentions of the three women who pursue the soldier in dalliances discreet or direct, depending upon the individual. Vaughn has a marvelous way with vocals, which she showcases to great effect with tunes such as Fifty Million Frenchmen and Don’t Touch Me Potato.
Birkenmeier plays the wide-eyed waif who is smitten with the GI and who is the one true love of his life. As the hooker, Valenti provides more smoke than the multitude of cigarettes exhaled, with provocative looks and movements that keep the GIs visiting Cafe Chanson.
Antonio Rodriguez completes the cast as a flirtatious waiter determined to have his way with the trooper from Lafayette, Louisiana, who doesn’t seem the type to reciprocate. Rodriguez dons one of costume designer Teresa Doggett’s flamboyant outfits, complete with fans and his own signature flair, in the amusing piece, Mam’selle Josephine et Mistinguette or the sardonic What Makes a Man.
Thanks to scenic and lighting designer Patrick Huber, the Kranzberg theater is neatly transformed into the cozy and quaint café, replete with velvet drapes and even a streetlight in back. Patrons are seated at tables, which add to the mystique of the performance. Claudia Mink Horn provides an array of clever props that enhance the atmosphere, and Palkes’ musical direction is always appropriate to various scenes.
The talented musicians working with Palkes include violinist Tova Braitberg, guitarist and accordionist Bill Lenihan and Mike Buerke on clarinet, flute and tenor sax.
Everyone at the Café Chanson conspires to make your visit to their notorious club a grand occasion, as grand as the resident Steinway piano known as Lisette. You’ll likely come away immensely impressed with what you hear and see.
Play: Café Chanson
Group: Upstream Theater
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd. at Olive
Dates: January 17, 18, 19, 20, 24, 25, 26, 27
Tickets: $20-$30; contact upstreamtheater.org or brownpapertickets.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak