Yvonne Constant Brings Paris to 46th Street

by Rob Lester

Yvonne Constant Brings Paris to 46th Street

I didn't expect to find a convenient segue leading into my review of Yvonne Constant's show except to say that I caught her openingthumb_yvonne_for_postcard.jpg at Danny's Skylight Room the very next night, March 28, or to say both singers wore sequins. They're quite different personalities. But early in her set, the French entertainer stops during the introductory verse of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" ("... the drip, drip, drip of the raindrops ...") to playfully curse cabaret master Bobby Short for his established directive to include those intros. "God knows I loved Bobby Short. I loved his energy and enthusiasm, but these lyrics irritate me." Offering a piece of paper from the piano, musical director, Russ Kassoff pipes up, "Yvonne, I have a surprise for you." In this bit of staged "business," she acts as if she'd never before seen the French translation and proceeds to sing a few lines. Then, she stops again and declares, "Now I am irritated in two languages." But in her night club act, she is charming - in two languages.

Her theme is La Chanson Realiste, the music popularized in France between the World Wars, but she does take one detour from the musicalized history lesson to flash forward to the 1960s (no, not to her own time on the boards in La Plume de ma tante, No Strings, The Gay Life). It is to embody the title song from Irma La Douce. It turns out to be one of the the highlights of the whole evening, like a miniature three-act play, wonderfully dramatic and building beautifully. With this number, Yvonne uses her whole body, stalking across the stage and incorporating full gestures as she tells the story that goes from bitter loneliness to exultation upon the hope of love's return. Of course, l'amour is the main subject at hand. Although she sings the majority of the material in French, the still-glamorous lady generously serves as guide/translator. Sometimes this comes in the form of switching to English for a chorus, but more often a concise aside as a summary or commentary (sometimes flip, sometimes just helpful).

Certainly a familiarity with the material makes for a fuller appreciation. I was glad I understand some French and know many of the songs, as there are some that would be known to most with a passing familiarity (the Josephine Baker specialty, "J'ai deux amours," and the well-worn torch song "My Man" and "Parlez-moi d'amour").

Yvonne is casual, despite the heavy nature of some of the material; she does not go in for big endings and flourishes, and a "well, that's that!" attitude comes through as she seems to dispense with one number and is eager to move right along. Edith Piaf signature numbers are dynamic and exciting, and seem to inspire a more fully involved performance rather than an amiable but laidback approach. Her "Milord" and "Non, je ne regrette rien" are quite thrilling in her strong throaty, dynamic renditions. Some of the other material as essayed does not call on her theatricality, but I did find myself wrapped up in the era as she talked about icons and the sensibilities of the times.

Yvonne is fortunate in having the services of Russ Kassoff as her (sole) musician, who several years ago conducted for French legend Charles Aznavour. The pianist-arranger, more commonly seen in a jazz setting, adds much flavor and support in this more straightforward, nostalgic style. I'd caught him just a few days earlier nimbly matching Debbie Gravitte's Broadway-style bravura, too, and I'm eager to hear his imminent release, a belated first solo CD. He told me, "Yvonne is very interesting and much fun to work with. It's a pleasure to explore this not often performed canon of songs with her." He added, "Regardless of whether or not you speak French, she gets you to understand the stories that she weaves." I think you'll agree. Perhaps not for every taste, but after hearing many well-meaning All-American singers trying to take on this kind of material, I must say you can't beat the genuine article, with the entrenched history and understanding, authentic accent and flair.