Upstream Theater has established a reputation as an innovative and thought-provoking company. The only certainty at an Upstream show is that you're going to see something unexpected. Even forearmed with that knowledge, you're going to be surprised by Ken Page's Café Chanson. It's equal parts cabaret performance, musical theater and what can only be deemed magic. It is also wholly entertaining.
The small theater at the Kranzberg Arts Center is reborn as Café Chanson, a sumptuous scarlet and candlelit cabaret in World War II Paris. The Nazis have been vanquished and the GIs are enjoying the nightlife. Among them is the Young Soldier (Justin Ivan Brown), a white Louisiana native who finds the music — and the women — to his liking. His black comrade, the Narrator (J. Samuel Davis), is a touch older and much wiser in the ways of the world. And tonight only, orbiting the Young Soldier is the Old Soldier (John Flack). He is the same man as the Young Soldier, but now able to revisit his wild younger years one final time as he teeters on the brink of death.
Only the Narrator can see the Old Soldier, and the two observe the Young Soldier as he screws a swath through the three ages of women, personified by Madame (Willena Vaughn), the Woman (Gia Grazia Valenti) and Mademoiselle (Elizabeth Birkenmeier). All of these seductions are performed for us through chanson, that peculiar French song that favors bittersweet subject matter and wry, piercing lyrics. Madame seduces the Young Soldier through the barely single entendre "Don't Touch Me Tomato," a ribald romp that Vaughn mewls through kittenishly. The Woman sets the Young Soldier aflame with a scorching version of "L'Accordeoniste," while the Mademoiselle wins his attention with a sweet rendition of "Adieu Mon Coeur."
It sounds thin, but it's not. Each of these performers acts through his or her song, mining a wealth of emotion and meaning from each lyric. These aren't songs, they're lives blossoming and fading before our eyes.
Nowhere is this made clearer than in the performance of two Charles Aznavour songs, one by the Man (Antonio Rodriguez) and the other by John Flack. Rodriguez's character is a gay waiter at the café who's deeply in love with the Young Soldier. He explains the enormity of his thwarted passion to the Young Soldier in the scathing "What Makes a Man." Rodriguez is a gifted singer, but he transcends mere singing; every gesture of his defiant hands, the way he sings to the Young Soldier while staring balefully into the audience — this is rare beauty, and it is harrowing.
Flack closes the show with a similarly affecting rendition of Aznavour's "Yesterday When I Was Young." Wise now about the error of his youthful indiscretions, with his death imminent, he sings, "And only I am left on stage to end the play/There are so many songs that won't be sung/I feel the bitter taste of tears upon my tongue/The time has come for me to pay/For yesterday when I was young."
There's not a note of sorrow in Flack's voice, however, here at the end of his life. This is his valedictory, with all of his regrets and rage left behind. He's ready to go on to his great reward, and as the last notes fade away, he crumples in upon himself, an old man in a dying body once again. And there in the doorway between this world and the next, his great reward finds him.