Conceived, written and directed by renowned actor/writer/director Ken Page, Cafe Chanson is a memorable production that's affecting and intriguing. It acts as both a tribute to the soldiers who have served our country with valor and conviction, as well as positing the idea of an afterlife that allows the dead to relive an experience from the past life before they pass over to the other side. This is a haunting and beautifully imagined work that cannot be recommended highly enough by me. Upstream Theater has, once again, provided an unusual and fascinating theatrical event that goes above and beyond the norm.
When an old soldier (John Flack at his finest) breathes his last breath on this mortal coil, he enters a doorway into another time. In this case, he revisits the American occupation of France during World War II when he was a private (winningly played by Justin Ivan Brown) sowing his wild oats. Details are filled in by a narrator (the incomparable J. Samuel Davis) as the old soldier encounters a younger version of himself, and is witness to what he deems as the "the best time of his life". He finds himself at the Cafe Chanson, run by the curvaceous Madame (a vivacious Willena Vaughn), and is entangled in a love quadrangle. When he encounters the lovely Mademoiselle (a fetching Elizabeth Birkenmeier), he's immediately smitten and callously puts aside his flirtation with Madame. He's also pursued by a man (an outstanding performance by Antonio Rodriguez) who performs in drag at the club, and finds physical love with a woman of the street (the sultry and sensual Gia Grazia Valenti). But, he leaves them all behind when the war officially ends, only to realize how lucky he was to have found so many loves in his life, when some people never find any.
Ken Page does exemplary work and has produced something that's mesmerizing and beautiful. It's truly a masterpiece that combines the music and poetry of many fine composers and writers to brilliant effect. He's aided by Henry Palkes expert music direction (and piano accompaniment), and he's assembled a fine band to back up the performers including: Tova Braitberg (violin), Mike Buerke (clarinet, flute, and tenor sax), and Bill Lenihan (accordion and guitar). Patrick Huber's scenic design puts the audience directly into the action with his recreation of a Paris nightclub, and his lighting scheme is very evocative and moody. Teresa Doggett's costumes are also very well done, and fit each character to perfection.
Upstream Theater's production of Cafe Chanson played through January 27, 2013 to consistently sold-out audiences. It's no wonder; it was an excellent presentation that one can only hope to see again.