“Cafe Chanson” Brings Joie de Vivre To Upstream…And To Us


Elizabeth Birkenmeier and Justin Ivan Brown sing "A Blue Like The Blue" in the Upstream production of "Cafe Chanson." Photo: Peter Wochniak

Elizabeth Birkenmeier and Justin Ivan Brown sing “A Blue Like The Blue” in the Upstream production of “Cafe Chanson.” Photo: Peter Wochniak

If you’re looking for something in St. Louis theatres with a touch of French, forget about “Les Miserables” at the movie theatre and enjoy the thrill of live theatre with a trip to the Kranzberg for Upstream Theatre’s “Cafe Chanson.” The talents of St. Louis native Ken Page are on display and we hope this means more from him on our local stages in the future. He has given us a touching, haunting, melodic trip to another place- another time. You might have trouble coping with the corner of  Grand and Olive and 2013 after you’ve visited Paris in 1944.

This 90 minute pastiche features songs from a feast of French artists that fit into the story line that Mr. Page has created to bring back ghosts from the past in order to cope with regrets in the present. We meet an old soldier who had served in the Army but is now ravaged with illness and left with his memories. As he literally steps through his “looking glass,” he comes face to face with his old buddy, Eddie who starts to re-run the old soldier’s life that focused on the little Cafe Chanson.

Antonio Rodriguez performs his "fan dance" during "Cafe Chanson" at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Antonio Rodriguez performs his “fan dance” during “Cafe Chanson” at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

John Flack does an incredible job as he watches himself and the many loves of his life from 1944 Paris to liberation when he leaves all of them behind. After “The Divine Sister” and now this brilliant performance, this may be the year of John Flack. The old soldier can only interact with Eddie who guides him through his memories and he realizes that he leaves as much regret behind as he has felt himself over the years. As the Narrator/Eddie, J. Samuel Davis is powerful as he takes the soldier through this surreal “This Is Your Life” sequence. He’s the glue that holds the story together and has a few surprises- and regrets- of his own.

As the younger version of himself, we watch as Justin Ivan Brown creates a strong character that you can see- through movement and manner- reflecting this brash soldier that is now reduced to re-living a life that is filled with regret. The owner of the Club Chanson, Madame, becomes the soldier’s first “conquest.” Played with a wonderful combination of strength and fragility by Willena Vaughn, the rest of the soldier’s escapades in Paris hinge on this affair. He meets a young lady, played with delightful sweetness and sincerity by Elizabeth Birkenmeir, whom he forsakes, of only momentarily for a more experienced relationship with a lady of the evening played with proper seduction by Gia Grazia Valenti.

Rounding out the cast is a remarkable performance by Antonio Rodriguez as a sort of M.C. a la “Cabaret” who takes on many guises including one of the soldier’s lovers. Not only does he sing and do a mean fan dance, but he plays trumpet at one point to accompany Madame. This is an outstanding cast that not only grasps the material, but works as a cohesive unit to bring this haunting story to life. The Patrick Huber set and light design enhance the audience’s trip back in time by setting up a true cabaret feel as we sit at bistro tables while the show literally goes on all around us. Add the perfect costumes of Teresa Doggett and this is about as realistic as you can get.

I’m not sure how many of the cast has smoked cigarettes before, but this also added authenticity to the piece. Unfiltered cigarettes and even a pack of Lucky Strikes and old Zippo lighter show up. The long drags and smoke escaping through both the mouth and nostrils filled the small Kranzberg space with smoke- again transporting us back in time. Hopefully any trouble with such an atmosphere won’t hinder you from seeing one of the best productions you’re likely to see this season.

Gia Grazia Valenti and Justin Ivan Brown share a drink during an interlude in "Cafe Chanson" at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

Gia Grazia Valenti and Justin Ivan Brown share a drink during an interlude in “Cafe Chanson” at Upstream Theatre. Photo: Peter Wochniak

The orchestra, led by the wonderful Henry Palkes, includes Tova Braitberg on violin, Mike Buerke on woodwinds and the haunting Parisian strains of the accordion by Bill Lenihan. An array of music from composers and performers like Charles Aznavour, Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet, Melody Gardot and the great Jacques Brel enhance this charming story created by Ken Page. Mr. Page, of course, directed as well and has created the perfect atmosphere for his story.

One minor problem arises occasionally when the orchestra overpowers the singers and we lose some of the subtler and softer sung lyrics, but that almost seems nit-picking when Upstream has created such a beautiful show. “Cafe Chanson” is a must see. We all experience regrets in our life and most of those have to do with love. The old soldier says, “we’re lucky to get one great love in a lifetime.” So don’t regret love that’s unrequited or love that’s lost- continue on- for time heals all wounds.

Contact Upstream Theatre at 314-863-4999 or at upstreamtheater.org for tickets or more information on the Ken Page production of his original work, “Cafe Chanson.”

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