August Darnell and Vivien Goldman’s new musical Cherchez La Femme, based on Darnell's 1976 hit song of the same name, opens with “Let’s Dance.” It is rhythmic and hot, and the beat permeates the house. The music is recorded, but the singing is live and jumpin’—the party is in full swing. The scene is 1980s New York, just as Caufy Keeps, played by Isaac Gay, is about to launch a much-anticipated tour with his backup singers, the Lemon Drops. The story is loosely based on Kid Creole and the Coconuts and their extraordinary influence on disco—fusing it with Caribbean, Latin, and a whole lot of Cab Calloway.
The book by Darnell and Goldman follows Caufy from New York, where his girlfriend has left him, as he heads for Haiti. Heartbroken, Caufy skips the tour. Instead he takes his sidekick Stingy Brim (CB Murray), often referred to as “brother,” along with his personal assistant to find her in Haiti.
The plot-heavy story includes a young woman who has been stalking Caufy in New York and announces that she is his daughter from a tryst in Oslo 20 years earlier. The Lemon Drops, furious with his decision, head off on their own to become the toast of Paris. The many threads of the story require a suspension of disbelief—all the events appear to happen within days. Scenes in Haiti and Paris could just have easily taken place in a variety of clubs and heavily ethnic communities in New York.
Other aspects are also less than credible. A scene at Customs in Haiti is superfluous and made little sense in that Caufy’s illegitimate daughter shows up at the same time and is able to sway the argumentative Customs agents. With “Baby Doc” Duvalier in power, he has taken issue with Reagan and the U.S.—the Customs agents are more than happy to take a heavy hand with Americans. Act II opens with an odd cheerleader number that seems to have nothing to do with the story. The mother of Caufy’s daughter has an accent that is anything but Scandinavian, not to mention that, for some reason, she is also in Haiti.
The music is where the juice is, and credit (then, as now) goes to Darnell and Stony Browder Jr. Their commitment to the original style they created for Kid Creole, as well as the additional numbers written, completes the show. Add ’80s-inspired choreography by Kyndra “Blinkie” Reevey, and the energy is palpable. Showcasing the talented Kristina Hanford, the reprise of Cherchez La Femme with the full company brings down the house.
Cherchez La Femme belongs to Gay and Murray. As Caufy Keeps, Gay has the sex appeal, certitude, and chops to carry a musical. Stingy Brim, played by Murray, has the best lines of the show. Yet he seems to be challenged by the 2½-hour run time and too many story lines; hence, his delivery is rushed.
Angie Kristic is the director of Cherchez La Femme and, while it’s evident she brought a lot to the production, some editing of the extraneous stories is needed, along with smoother transitions between scenes and more tech rehearsals. The sound, more than anything, is a problem. There are too few speakers and they are poorly placed, with a heavy bass track producing unbalanced harmonies. For as much work as was put into creating and staging this production, the sound and the vocals deserve better.
Costuming (Adriana Kaegi) is pure ’80s, but a bolder color palette would work better, especially for the Lemon Drops. The baggy, zoot suit style of the period is correct; however, Stingy is in need of a good tailor. The choice of using necklaces as bribes for the Lemon Drops was a mistake given the lavalieres each is wearing, as they were difficult and too noisy to put on. Set design (Aaron Mavinga) is bare-bones and a tad too "high school musical"—spray paint, plastic martini glasses, and a cheesy room divider. The village set in Haiti is on point, but it is so far upstage that the distance from the audience has the actors scrambling to fill the space. The lighting (Joe Beahm) in Haiti is a little too soft, and the disco scenes missing the big ’80s flair; however, the fog is a cool touch in those scenes.
It’s rumored that the French meaning of Cherchez la femme—literally, “Look for the woman”—is sexist, meaning no matter what the problem may be a woman is often the cause. In this case, it’s more the lack of a stronger hand editing and some distance from the material, albeit male or female, to know what to keep and what to let go of. Cherchez La Femme has some really good bones—just a few too many to give it the long run it deserves.
Cherchez La Femme continues in The Ellen Stewart Theatre at La Mama (66 East 4th St., Manhattan), through June 12. Tickets are $35 for adults; $30 for students and seniors either online at www.lamama.org, by phone at 646-430-5374, or at the La MaMa box office: noon-6 p.m. daily.