In Shaftesbury Avenue where star names above the marquee are part of the furniture, it’s a show biz coup to have got Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland all on the same bill. Well, not quite. No need for any prima donna strops over who gets the star dressing room here. In Divas, Danish choreographer Peter Schaufuss propels his international troupe through a three-part homage to this long-departed trio of 20th-century show biz icons, each section combining a clutch of their legendary recordings with his own contemporary dance routines.
Concept-wise, the end result sometimes goes a dance step too far. You could, for instance, close your eyes through much of the opening Piaf section – “Non, je ne regrette rien” and “La vie en rose”, “Milord” and so on accompanied by hints of Montmarte, the Can-Can and louche apache dance – and just sit back and wonder at this tiny woman’s massive powerhouse vocals, scratchily recorded in a pre-digital age.
In the second section, Dietrich’s unique interpretation of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” is another aural emotional onslaught which surely defies all known body languages. Dance, even with Schaufuss’ unique way of getting his soloists to work several different styles into a few angular movements, adds little power to the drive of the song, which leaves the centerpiece tableaux of Zara Deakin’s über-blonde Dietrich confronted by gravestones, a flurry of red petals and a virginal mädchen playing “come and get me” with an even more virginal-looking Hitler Youth, unable to compete with the shocking imagery in the lyrics.
But to a surprising extent, the unlikely mix ‘n’ match of three divas’ greatest hits and Schaufuss’ impressionistic movement ideas does work surprisingly well, turning a self-styled “dance spectacular” into rather intimate nostalgia fest for Piaf, Garland and Dietrich fans that might well have been be re-titled Torch Song Trilogy.
Just don’t expect lookalikes. The three principal ballerinas are catwalk tall and spectacularly beautiful, the total opposites of the women they represent, although Deakin’s Deitrich arrives on stage in the swishiest mink coat seen in Shaftesbury Avenue since the diva herself performed along the road at the Queen’s Theatre in 1965. Irina Kolesnikova, taking the role of Judy Garland, and Caroline Petter in Piaf mode are both immensely powerful exponents of the Schaufuss joy-through-strength style, as are the 23 members of the youthful corps-de-ballet, who also have to be adept at jostling for position on the cramped Apollo stage.
Divas is a far more coherent show than Satisfaction, Schaufuss’ unsatisfactory Rolling Stones dance compilation at the same theatre last year. It may not shed any new limelight on Piaf, Dietrich and Garland, but just hearing these divas at full belt in a theatre rather than at home on CD was divine enough for me.