Time has not been kind to Suzy Solidor, the Parisian nightclub sensation of the 1930s. Solidor earned a reputation as “the most-painted woman in the world,” and her image was captured by some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, including Tamara de Lempicka, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, and dozens of others. Known primarily for her erotic songs about lesbian desire, Solidor is all but forgotten today, but the immensely gifted singer and actress Jessica Walker may just rescue her from the footnotes of entertainment history. Walker’s new work, All I Want Is One Night (originally directed by Sarah Frankcom and currently directed by the company), which is part of the Brits Off Broadway series at 59E59 Theaters, offers compelling reason to become reacquainted (or, as the case may be, acquainted) with the cross-dressing French cabaret singer.
Walker has pursued similar show-biz excavations in the past several years. At the same theater in 2014 she performed her one-person show, Pat Kirkwood Is Angry, in which she assumed the persona of the obscure West End and television star. Before that she presented The Girl I Left Behind, an evening of stories and songs about cross-dressing lesbian performers of the early 20th century. All I Want is One Night, however, is more ambitious than Walker’s previous Brits-Off-Broadway forays even if there are many similarities. As with the former performances, most of the audience sits at club tables (though there are a few rows of standard seating in the back of the nightclub space), but this is not strictly a cabaret show. Not only does Walker share the stage with the exceptional Joseph Atkins, her longtime music director and accompanist, she has also created a handful of roles performed by two talented and protean actresses, Rachel Austin and Alexandra Mathie.
This play with music begins in 1980, and the lights come up on a frail yet still salty Solidor, who is dressed as a naval admiral and surrounded by some of her paintings and antiques. Swedish artist Bengt Lindström (Mathie) has arrived in Haut de Cagnes, and he plans to immortalize the former star, using his signature style of thick paints applied with palette knives. Giselle (Austin), Solidor’s newest young assistant and plaything, dutifully tolerates her employer’s sexual humiliation as Lindström learns about the colorful biography of his subject.
In an effort to evoke Solidor’s former glory for the painter, Giselle plays one of her records, “Les Filles de Saint-Malo” (“The Girls of Saint-Malo”). The song coaxes the latent magic from the chanteuse, and the scene transforms to Solidor’s nightclub, La Vie Parisienne, circa 1935. Solidor is a sexy and ingratiating host, and her banter and songs teasingly exude sexual innuendo and double entendre. For example, while referring to the cabaret as “the hottest box in Paris,” she adds, “To those of you who’ve sampled my box before, I’m honored that you have chosen to pay it another visit.”
The rest of the show fluidly moves through various nightclubs in Solidor’s long career, weaving onstage performances with dramatized lovers’ quarrels and biographical bits of information. Notably, the play does not shy away from the singer’s controversial stances. During the occupation, for instance, Solidor catered to German military officers even as the Resistance gained momentum.
Walker’s Solidor is a fascinating creation. Her overt sexuality, flirtatiousness (women audience members, be forewarned!), and seductive song stylings prompt reminiscences of Marlene Dietrich. Indeed, Walker’s insinuating version of “Lily Marlene” is a highlight of the musical numbers. Yet, in her naïve unwillingness to see political realities behind the show business glitter, she is a close cousin to Sally Bowles. When accused of being a Nazi collaborator, for instance, she responds, “Collaboration is what makes me a good lay, sweetheart.”
The show lasts just 65 minutes, but it is a rich, full evening. One regret is that there is not more of a chance to hear Walker sing. She is a terrific actress, but, greedily, eight songs for this glorious voice do not seem enough. That said, Walker’s version of “Je ne veux qu’une nuit” (“All I Want Is One Night”) is filled with unabashed longing, and her “Escale” (“Port of Call”) pulsates with rough and raw sexuality. And the late Suzy Solidor would probably not have it any other way.
Part of the Brits Off Broadway season, All I Want is One Night runs through July 1 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m, Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:15 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. For tickets and information, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.