May 29, 2016

Nostalgia can be a seductive emotion, but it can be a perilous one, too. It was primarily my affection for the music of Kid Creole and the Coconuts — a genre-busting R&B band with a cult following in the 1980s — that led me to see “Cherchez La Femme,” a new musical at La MaMa that billed itself loosely as a Kid Creole jukebox musical. I learned the hard way that while you may or may not be able to go home again, going back to the ’80s isn’t always an exhilarating experience. (And, yes, I know, they’re sort of “back.”) Although performed with infectious gusto, the musical, with a book by August Darnell (a.k.a. Kid Creole) and Vivien Goldman, and a few new songs by Mr. Darnell and his brother, Stony Browder Jr., features a plot that’s both scattered and labored. And if you, like me, are enticed by the idea of hearing Kid Creole’s liveliest songs performed live, you may be disappointed by the absence of some favorites. Gone missing: “I’m a Wonderful Thing, Baby” and “Stool Pigeon,” to cite two of mine, and there’s just one brief chorus of “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy.” The creators didn’t stray very far in search of a story. The plot follows the fortunes of a band called Caufy Keeps and the Lemon Drops, who, as the show begins, are having a party to celebrate their coming tour. The year is 1984, and the suits are the colorful double-breasted kind Kid Creole favored. “‘They’ said our music was not accessible enough!” Caufy (Isaac Gay) announces to the crowd. “They said our eclectic blend of styles was unorthodox!” But personal problems loom. Caufy’s girlfriend, Deliciosa, or Didi (Skyler Volpe), has disappeared in a fit of jealousy. She has flown off to a remote village in Haiti, and Caufy is determined to track her down. His frequent dalliances notwithstanding, he realizes he truly loves only her. Before he goes, he runs into a 14-year-old fan named Addie (Jacira Araujo), who sings of her ardent affection for Caufy. Somewhat preposterously, when Caufy, his brother, Stingy Brim (CB Murray), and Caufy’s assistant Doris (Traci Michelle) run into trouble with customs officials in Haiti, in swans a confident Addie, who saves them from being sent back home. It appears she’s a friend of a friend of Bebe Doc, presumably Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as Baby Doc, the tyrannical ruler of Haiti at the time. “Cherchez La Femme,” directed somewhat loosely by Angie Kristic, nods to the country’s dire economic situation in the songs “Haiti” and “No Fish Today.” Yet when Stingy mutters about the state of the nation, Addie says, “Let a ruthless dictator be in your face day in and day out … see what it does to you.” (But I thought she and Bebe Doc were practically pals?) Eventually Addie leads Caufy to Deliciosa, but the reunion doesn’t go well, particularly because there’s another woman present, Ulrike (Julia Neveu), a Norwegian with whom Caufy apparently had a fling in Oslo some 15 years before. Do the math, and you can figure out where the plot is headed, although there is a last-minute twist. The dialogue, while sometimes frisky and funny (and bizarrely studded with allusions to movies and plays), is also overwritten and often seems to be going in circles. And the plot pingpongs awkwardly between New York and Haiti — with a pit stop in Paris, where the Lemon Drops, played with funny, squeaky-voiced sass by Kristina Hanford, Molly McCloskey and Jenna Velichko, strike out on their own and are briefly a success. The songs, with the exception of the title tune (which was actually recorded by a Kid Creole precursor, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band) and a couple of others, are mostly not from the Kid Creole top-drawer, and interrupt the action more than they move it forward. It doesn’t help that the cast sings to recorded music. Still, the multicultural cast is probably the show’s primary attraction. Mr. Gay radiates a sexy charisma and warmth as Caufy, rendering his women troubles thoroughly believable. As the ever-fuming Stingy, Mr. Murray makes the most of his funny fits of irritation, but his loyalty to his friend is convincing, too. The women are just as good, with Ms. Michelle a particularly funny presence as Caufy’s beleaguered but devoted assistant, who finds love with the doorman of Caufy’s building, played with nice spunk by Nerses Stamos. The up-tempo musical numbers, choreographed by Kyndra Binkie Reevey, give the convoluted plot nice jolts of energy and are danced with ebullient relish by the cast. But “Cherchez La Femme,” unlike Kid Creole’s best songs, never really finds a comfortable groove.