ON THE BOULEVARD
Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1
Opened 3 June, 1996

Liliane Montevecchi was last seen at length in London in the West End run of the musical Grand Hotel. She has also been a prima ballerina, a star of the Folies Bergère and a contract starlet with MGM Pictures. The former Tony award-winner now presents a one-woman musical show in a louche basement theatre off Lower Regent Street, in which any snorts of derision are rapidly silenced by the force of her personality.

Yes, she may look like the picture in Liza Minnelli's attic; yes, she may emerge for her finale in a robe sewn with the entirety of the EU sequin mountain; yes, I may have alternated seriously considering falling for an older woman (older than whom? It doesn't matter, just older) with wondering how the old slapper thought she could get away with it... but get away with it she does, in spades. Montevecchi's strategy is to keep playing it big, even though she may be downstairs from a Spaghetti House; sure enough, the laughs come, but with them comes a warm, golden seduction, until the audience accepts unquestioningly that the greatness she so amusingly protests is her true and deserved stature.

The songwriters whose work she performs may include Sondheim, Porter and Rodgers & Hammerstein as well as Piaf, Aznavour and Brel, but this is primarily an evening of chanson: Montevecchi vamps playfully with the punters and unleashes torrents of guttural Gallic Rs, switching between French and English in alternate verses and coolly seguéing from number to number in a tight, skilfully programmed set. Having co-opted her violinist as a dancing partner on "New Fangled Tango", she manages to make standing still seem the most erotic activity imaginable on a dance-floor; flirting with around half the audience in turn during "Je Cherche Un Millionaire", she made a succession of critics shrug apologetically for the modest size of their wallets.

Her patter is the glue that holds the show together, whether talking about la vie Parisienne "You could go to Boulevard des Invalides, where is the tomb of Napoléon... if you care for ashes" or her own life story: recounting her casting in Tommy Tune's musical Nine, she explains, "I never been to an audition before (I'm a star, I'm a star)"... the audience chuckles, but on that occasion Montevecchi laughed all the way to a Tony. And as the evening progresses, her musical skill advances by stealth, until... well, not even the great Scott Walker could make Rod McKuen's mawkish English lyric for "Ne Me Quitte Pas (If You Go Away)" sound genuinely poignant, but Montevecchi brings out the beautiful tristesse without even breaking sweat. By the end of the press performance she had the most hardened West End butchers eating out of her panther-like paw. A remarkable woman.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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