Look out, Elaine Stritch: You've got competition for the most glamorous golden-years gams in town, and French chanteuse Yvonne Constant is currently flashing them with style at the Metropolitan Room. Constant, though most definitely an original, is also like Stritch in that she performs in take-no-prisoners mode, incapable of sentimentality, show-bizzy glitter, and spurious uplift. She lays it on the line with tart honesty, communicating in that universal language known as the Gallic shrug, of which she employs infinite shadings. Constant reclaims the word "sophistication" as a term of admiration.
The lady has been at her trade for more than half a century, yet the former ballet dancer and Tony-winning performer still looks sexy and smashing in a short beige shift, held together at the sides by twin cascades of golden rings, worn over a full body suit. This is her sixth Metropolitan engagement in three years, and the organizational idea this time around is "La Différence," as in the differences between French and American attitudes toward life, love, politics, art, and sex. These are explored both through Constant's witty self-written commentary and the often-extreme variances between French and English lyrics to popular chansons by the likes of Gilbert Bécaud and Charles Trenet.
Constant arrives on stage via an amusing gloss on "La Marseillaise" that quietly punctures its perfervid patriotism. Then she takes flight with a quartet of Trenet songs, during which she explains that she is only a recent convert to his oeuvre, having dismissed him as lightweight for most of her career. You'd never know it from her fizzy renditions of "Boum" and "Je Chante!," in which she thoroughly embraces the songs' giddy and occasionally manic charm while leavening it with a pointed self-awareness.
Two Bécaud numbers—"Seul sur Son Etoile (lyric by Maurice Vidalin) and "Et Maintenant" (lyric by Pierre Delanoë), which roughly translate as "Alone on His Star" and "And Now"—are revelatory to hear in their original French, particularly when Constant compares them with their gaudy American counterparts: "It Must Be Him" (English lyric by Mack David) and "What Now My Love" (English lyric by Carl Sigman). But even if you don't speak the language (my high-school French was only good enough to get the broad gist), Constant successfully illustrates the yawning cultural chasm through emotional specificity and occasional commentary.
The evening's unquestionable highlight is Constant's stunning version of "Comme d'Habitude" (music by Claude François, lyric by Jacques Revaux and Gilles Thibaut), which Paul Anka turned into the floridly bathetic anthem "My Way" for Frank Sinatra. Constant keeps the title in French (though she helpfully tells us that it means "as usual") but substitutes a close English translation for the rest of the French lyric. The song paints a devastating portrait of a long-term romantic relationship that has devolved into routine emptiness. It couldn't be further from the shallow self-congratulations of Anka's melodramatic wallowing. As if to prove that the language leap needn't always be fatal, Constant then sings a haunting account of "Mon Vieux" (music by Jean Ferrat, lyric by Daniel Guichard and Michelle Fricault), here rendered as "My Dad" in Herbert Hartig's elegantly terse translation.
There is one other thing Constant shares with Stritch, and that is a challenged memory, something that marred both her storytelling and her performances of "My Dad" and Stephen Sondheim's "Ah, Paris!," which Constant sang in the 2007 Encores! concert staging of "Follies." Fortunately, she receives excellent support in getting back on track from her superb musical director, pianist Russ Kassoff, though I do confess I found their faux-antagonism shtick a bit wearying. Still, these are minor cavils, and they shouldn't discourage you from sampling the pungent flavors of this confident and compelling artist.