In the final moments of Cyrano de Bergerac Rostand's hero, dying in the arms of Roxanne, shuffles off his mortal coil with characteristic style:
You strip from me the laurel and the rose! Take all! Despite you there is yet one thing I hold against you all, and when, to-night, I enter Christ's fair courts, and, lowly bowed, Sweep with doffed casque the heavens' threshold blue, One thing is left, that, void of stain or smutch, I bear away despite you.
'Tis?. . .
As part of the research he and his assistant Marna Petersen did for Chevalier - Maurice and Me, veteran entertainer Tony Sandler discovered that the legendary French star made his exit from life in somewhat the same way as Cyrano. Not wanting his many friends and admirers to witness his final decline, he insisted on dying alone, in his home, at the age of 83. The man who once said that he'd always leave the table before he wound up under it preserved, to the end, his panache.
I bring all this up because the performance of Chevalier - Maurice and Me that I saw this past Thursday [November 13, 2008] at the Sheldon's Savoy Ballroom was, regrettably, somewhat lacking in the nearly indefinable mix of flamboyance, confidence and style that's implied by the word and which characterized the career of France's most popular musical ambassador.
That's not to say that the show wasn't, on the whole, entertaining and informative. It's just that there were too many moments when Mr. Sandler was clearly struggling for his next line and losing his concentration. The occasional slip of this sort is inevitable; show me a performer who says “I've never 'gone up' on stage” and I'll show you a bald-faced liar. But when they're a regular occurrence an unavoidable barrier begins to rise between the actor and the audience.
To be fair, it must be said that Mr. Sandler clearly loves both Chevalier and the songs he made famous, and the script Ms. Petersen has assembled for him provides some fascinating insights into the man and his life. The many jokes woven into the story are generally quite funny, even if some of them were probably old when the teenaged Chevalier was an unpaid café singer in 1901, and Mr. Sandler's joy in performing classics such as “Louise”, “Valentine” and “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” (which inspired one of the Marx Brothers' more inspired flights of lunacy in Monkey Business) was infectious. It was also delightful to hear some of Chevalier's less-well-known French language hits, even if the lyrics were incomprehensible to non-francophones like yours truly.
The opening night audience obviously agreed. Even those who apparently shared my reservations clearly loved him, and most of them gave him a standing ovation.
Originally performed in 1999, Chevalier - Maurice and Me is an unusual hybrid of celebrity tribute and impersonation, with Mr. Sandler dropping out of the role of Chevalier as needed to relate the story of the entertainer's life and his influence on Mr. Sandler. His realization of Chevalier - it's too uncanny to be dismissed as mere impersonation, my earlier use of the word not withstanding - is often quite remarkable. When, towards the end of the 90-minute, one-act show, he dons a frock coat, grey cloves and matching hat for a re-creation of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” from the closing frames of Gigi, I felt that I was watching something akin to reincarnation. Unlike Chevalier, however, Mr. Sandler was never a song-and-dance man, so he's less successful in recreating the fluid grace that marked Chevalier's persona.
Mr. Sandler was backed by a small combo headed by his pianist and music director Evan Mazunik and consisting of local musicians Eric Stiller on bass, Joe Pastor on percussion and Isaac Liftis on the essential accordion. Mr. Mazunik's ability to keep everyone on the same page (literally, in a few cases) was really quite impressive, as was his pianism. Mr. Sandler is lucky to have such a sympathetic accompanist, which makes it a pity that he didn't acknowledge him or the other musicians at the end of the show.
The bottom line is that when he was fully “in the moment” Mr. Sandler was the very ideal of Gallic flair, elegance and joie de vivre. Had there been more of them, Chevalier - Maurice and Me would have been more than a pleasant evening's diversion. It would have had (and, for all I know, often may have) panache.
Next on Cabaret St. Louis' schedule is singer/songwriter Spencer Day on Sunday, November 30th, 2008. For more information visit the Cabaret St. Louis web page at cabaretstl.org. To find out which of Mr. Sandler's five shows he's doing next, visit his site, tonysandler.com.