05/10/2014 01:34 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2014

First Nighter: Encores! Irma La Douce Isn't So Sweet

Irma La Douce, starring Elizabeth Seal and Keith Michell, opened on Broadway in 1960, and when the Tonys awards for the season were handed around in 1961, Seal won over Julie Andrews for Camelot, Carol Channing for Show Girl and Nancy Walker for Do Re Mi.

Since she'd arrived, she'd been what back in that day was known as the toast of the town. So she must have been something to see and hear. I can't say definitively, since I never saw her or that production. I did watch her recently in a YouTube clip posted by theatreaficionado singing, with Michell, the tuner's biggest hit, "Our Language of Love."

She certainly had an appealing quality about her, but I suspect there was much more than is apparent in the YouTube clip that radiated from her on the Alvin and Plymouth stages, where the acclaimed piece played it 524 performances over the next year and a half.

There absolutely had to be a great deal more, for nothing else would explain why Irma La Douce, revived at City Center's Encores! series for the first time since then, could have captivated audiences, critics and Tony voters. Even though Fred Gwynne, George S. Irving, Clive Revill and the young Elliott Gould were in the cast, they couldn't have added enough to compensate for the feeble enterprise that apparently is all there is of Irma La Douce.

Irma (Jennifer Bowles) is a kind-hearted prostitute working in Paris's famously racy Pigalle area, and, more specifically, in a nefarious environ known as Le Milieu. She regularly patronizes -- to entice the patrons -- the Bar-des-Inquiets where Bob-Le-Hotu (Malcolm Gets), is not only the proprietor but also the narrator of what goes on with Irma (pronounced for these purposes, Ear-ma).

A milk-drinking customer calling himself Nestor (Rob McClure) turns up one day, falls for Irma, and vice versa. Trouble ensues when Nestor develops fits of jealousy, which prompt Irma to consult a bearded friend, Oscar, who is actually Nestor in disguise. This predicament leads to a sequence where Irma is hustling between Nestor and Oscar, and audience members are beginning to lose patience and/or nod off.

Little else needs to be filled in about the plot, other than mention of twists like Nestor's having to do away with Oscar, his being tried for murder, convicted and sent to Devil's Island for hard labor, his escaping with friends imprisoned along with him and rowing(!) all the way back to France, Paris, Pigalle and Bob-Le-Hotu's busy establishment -- and to the now pregnant (by him) Irma.

What Irma La Douce really is is rampant idiocy, for which there may be no excuse but for which there may be a wacky rationale having to do with national tastes. As is undoubtedly clear, the property was initially French and written by Alexander Breffort with music by Marguerite Monnot (about whom more later).

Evidently, it was such a Gallic click that Englishmen Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman adapted it for the British stage, where it was such a success that David Merrick decided to import it but not to assign scribes on these shores to tweak it. Maybe he tried, and no one succumbed. Maybe, he just figured -- rightly -- that leading lady Seal was all it needed here.

Now it's revealed that French humor brought here by way of English humor doesn't travel easily. So it's at Encores!, where Seal isn't on hand, and the perfectly adequate, though ultimately lackluster (with the exception of the always reliable Gets) troupe assembled are unable to make anything of it. That's even under the direction of the usually clever John Doyle and the always cheerful conductor Rob Berman. McClure is valiantly giving his all to no avail, and Bowles and veterans like Stephen DeRosa are trying, but no soap.

That's not quite right. Choreographer Chase Brock musters something saucy in a second act dance that Bowles does with four of the cast members as bearded penguins. (Don't ask.) Worth noting is that the original dance music is credited to John Kander. For all we know, he may have been listening to Monnot's melodies while hanging around rehearsals, thought he could at least do as well and built himself into the composer for whom Fred Ebb and the rest of us are now grateful.

As for Monnot: Edith Piaf lovers know that some of her best-known songs -- in the '40s and '50s they were internationally known -- are Monnot's and include "The Poor People of Paris," "Milord" and "If You Love Me, Really Love Me."

Evidently, she wrote the Irma la Douce score after falling out with Piaf. Several of the numbers, all sounding as if to be played on accordion (as they are here by William Schimmel) -- are up to Monnot's standards. Among them are "Our Language of Love" and the haunting "Irma-La-Douce." There aren't enough of them, however, to serve as show redeemers.

Throughout Irma la Douce, Irma repeats the term "dis donc," for which there's no strict translation. (Audience members who don't know French will have no idea what she's uttering.) Literally meaning "say then," dis donc is used by the French to indicate that that's the way things are -- often in a conversation-stopping way.

So where does this Irma La Douce stand? Dis donc!