By Tulis McCall
Suzy Solidor. Name ring a bell? No? Don’t feel bad. People come and go, have their spotlight and then leave our memory banks. (Quick – who won the Tony for Best Musical in 2013. See what I mean?) Jessica Walker has once again put her talents to work researching and revealing a woman with whom most (none?) of us are familiar. Her last appearance at 59E59 Pat Kirkwood Is Angry did much the same in a different format. With I Only Want One Night, Walker invites us into the pre-WWII Paris where Suzy Solidor held court.
Solidor seems, for all intents and purposes, to be one of those people who was famous by being famous. Her branding, if you will, included the fact that she possessed 225 portraits of herself – by artists such as Tamara de Lempicka, Francis Bacon, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and Erte. These she hung in her nightclub, La Vie Parisienne, and one wonders if people came as much to see the art work as to listen to the artist. Solidor was openly gay or perhaps bisexual. She was sensual and eager to devour life with every pore in her body. Jessica Walker’s portrayal of Solidor makes this abundantly clear.
The fine performances of the other members of the cast Rachel Austin (Daisy her maid and Giselle her lover) and Alexandra Mathie (the artists Bengt Windstorm and Tamara de Lempira, the Nazi Lieutenant Niebuhr, a transgender performer Bambi and Solidor’s father Robert Surcouf) not only support Walker but bring needed zest and spark. Walker does her best to convey the passion and determination of Solidor, and she succeeds mightily in the songs (translated into English by Walker) which evoke smoke filled rooms and leave not a dry thigh in the house. (Joseph Atkins is the perfect musician to accompany her both on piano and accordion.) The autobiographical monologues and the patter directed at the audience do not hold up as well as they feel random and disconnected.
It is in the music and the interaction between the characters that we feel the beating heart of Solidor. These elements fill in the blanks of the story we don’t know. Solidor was a woman who depended on the kindness of strangers to reflect what she hoped to see. The 225 portraits were not enough. She had to watch from across the street as museum goers flocked to an exhibition of them. Approval was her opiate.
Ultimately, as Solidor aged, so did the portraits – as well as the style of portraiture. These were not the reflections she wanted to see, and the people attending her took advantage of course. Her ending was a sad and silent one.
While all the performances are all intimate and intriguing, these women have some mighty hurdles in terms of the structure of this piece. Walker has chosen to bring the audience directly into her 1935 cabaret, and in the confined space of Theatre B, this device never quite works. People are seated at night club tables with no beverages in their hands. The actors have to maneuver between the tables (even if they are askew) and the sight lines are not the best. I chose to sit in the “gallery” and my view was dandy. Walker does her best to be intimate in this tiny space, but it often feels forced. Perhaps a few less tables? In addition there was one visual that distracted me – Walker has a beautiful short haircut, but Solidor had what we call a Page-Boy in every portrait that we see. Why not a simple wig? This is an odd choice when so much else is delivered in great detail.
All in all it is an uneven production. It does, however, succeed in what I believe is the intended goal. Suzy Solidor is alive and well in my mind. With All I Want Is One Night the door to Suzy Solidor’s life and light has been flung open and the hinges removed. Solidor carved her life on her terms in a time when the only social media was person to person. We live in a time when feedback, wanted or not, is instantaneous. We know what each other eats, drinks and thinks. What kind of hutzpah would it take to create a life brick by brick, to measure progress inch by inch, to choose to create a trail with no guide other than your own GPS?
It would take big time hutzpah. Solidor hutzpah. The kind of hutzpah that we forget we each possess, and of which we cannot be reminded too often. Brava to that.
All I Want Is One Night – by Jessica Walker, Original Direction by Sarah Frankcom, Revival Direction by The Company, Musical Direction by Joseph Atkins
A Jess Walker Music Theater production, in association with the Royal Exchange Theater, Manchester, England, presented by 59E59 Theaters as part of Brits Off Broadway; Val Day, Artistic Director, artistic director; Brian Beirne, managing director. At the 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, Manhattan, 212-279-4200, 59e59.org. Through July 1. Running time: 65 minutes. Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or online at www.59e59.org. The single ticket price is $25 – $35 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members)
The Brits Off Broadway season at 59E59 Theaters (Val Day, Artistic Director; Brian Beirne, Managing Director) with the US premiere of ALL I WANT IS ONE NIGHT, written by Jessica Walker, with music director