Liliane Montevecchi continues at the Crazy Coqs, London, until 27 February.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Whatever the French is for “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” should be the title of Liliane Montevecchi’s second Crazy Coqs visit because it is an almost song-for-song, anecdote-for-anecdote replica of last February’s Paris On the Thames show – and still as magical as ever.
In fact, it’s the same On the Boulevard show, minus just one song, she recorded in New York in 1998 and later brought over to the Pizza On the Park in London. And remarkably similar to the Be My Valentine cabaret she’s just performed at 54 Below in Manhattan.
But often the old ones are the best. Montevecchi has not reached the age of 83 without working out what she’s good at and what not to attempt with a voice that has never been her greatest strength.
It is her acting of the material, whether French standards or shows with which she’s been closely associated like Nine, Grand Hotel and Irma La Douce, and the story-telling, whether being self-deprecating or boastful (she has plenty to boast about) that make this evergreen gamine so enchanting.
The amazing use of elegant hands, the ronde de jambes with shapely leg draped dramatically atop accompanist Nathan Martin’s piano, the glamorous outfits showing off a still-enviable figure and the immediate rapport she can strike up with an audience are all part of the package.
“I’m cruising,” she says, going round the whole room propositioning any well-heeled male with ‘Je Cherche Un Millionnaire’, a song made famous by another French legend, Mistinguett, in the 1930s.
Before adding: “You know, in America they insured Mistinguett’s legs for a million dollars, but they weren’t that good,” showing off her own fabled prima ballerina pins, still perfect 60-plus years after her Ballet de Paris and Folies Bergere days before she hit Hollywood.
Her true story of Mistinguett’s kleptomanic habits when staying at the Ritz has a wonderful punchline which I won’t spoil in case you go (do go!) but it deservedly gets the biggest laugh on a night full of good humour and nostalgia.
One thing is certain: we shall never see her like again. There cannot be any other octogenarian who can still genuinely be described as sexy, in the most feminine, feline way possible.
She tells about dancing with Fred Astaire “but they cut it out of the film!” and working with Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando before making it on Broadway as a Tony Award winner for Nine and Tony nominee for Grand Hotel (which she also did in London in 1992).
It’s a shame Stephen Sondheim has never seen her X-certificate version of the saucy ‘I Never Do Anything Twice’ he wrote for The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a 1976 movie in which Sherlock Holmes meets Sigmund Freud and Laurence Olivier plays Professor Moriarty (I kid you not).
Originally called ‘The Madame’s Song’, not much of it remains in the film and the title was changed by the time Millicent Martin sang it on the Side By Side By Sondheim cast recording. Only Martin never sang it like the wicked Liliane – it simply wouldn’t have been allowed!
Above all, she invokes the spirit of Paris, whether it be on ‘La Vie En Rose’, ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, ‘Folies Bergere’ (the song Maury Yeston wrote for her in Nine on Broadway in 1982) or the naughty Cole Porter composition from Nymph Errant, ‘Si Vous Aimez Les Poitrines’, which she illustrates enthusiastically and takes great delight in translating as ‘If you love titties’.
Her use of props to set a mood is quite brilliant –- just watch her don a black raincoat and fedora and drop her voice for ‘Just a Gigolo’ – and when she pulls a man out of the audience to dance ‘A New-Fangled Tango’ (from the 1956 show Happy Hunting) with her, she has the audience eating out of the palm of her hand.
No wonder this 90-minute blast from the past earned Montevecchi a standing ovation: this is cabaret as it should be – not just a few unconnected songs strung together without any lovingly-thought-out patter to link them.
Any would-be cabaret performer should just go along, sit at her feet and learn.