Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"Coco" -- Hepburn is unforgettable

Cleveland Press January 12, 1971

"Coco" which opened last night at the Music Hall, is a Katharine Hepburn special.

It pretends to be a musical, but we know better, we fans of the great Miss Hepburn. Other motives not withstanding, we know the show exists only so that we may come to pay homage; to watch a bravura performance without equal.

And good Kate Hepburn -- bless her growling. biting, exuberant voice- never lets us down.

UP AND DOWN that mirrored staircase she goes and we love it because one grand entrance is enough , for the ordinary actress but she rates more and gets them. She marches, waltzes, slides and stumbles in happiness, sadness and drunkenness and each time is greater than the last.

When now and then she stops it is to plant both feet firmly on the stage while her arms are extended longingly for a memory, or to thrust her hands in her pockets as she faces the world squarely.

SHE LAUGHS a big, happy laugh. She gives a funny line more bite and polish than it deserves and you are glad she did.

Suddenly she is recalling an eight-year-old girl longing for her father and she becomes that girl and with tears running down her face she becomes every child who has ever been disappointed.

In short this is an unforgettable performance in an otherwise forgettable show.

"Coco" is about Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel, the great French fashion designer who died this past Sunday; and whose name is best known because it adorns a perfume bottle. The time is 1953 and Coco Chanel is attempting a comeback in the fashion world after an absence of 15 years.

WILL SHE MAKE it or won't she? The question lacks even a tiny amount of suspense. The villain of the piece is a fag dress designer and much of the humor is of the limp wrist variety. There is a boy-girl romance as Coco takes an interest in a young woman who comes to her and who recalls her own past. But the romance is shunted off to one side.

Coco's own past past lovers enter via projected images on large screens and recorded voices that talk and sing to her.

ASIDE FROM the presence of the star the show has a couple of other asserts. Alan Jay Lerner's book is weak on plot but strong on epigrams which tend to pass as dialog. Fortunately most of them were given to the star to utter and good line come out superbly. Some of the targets are slaves of fashion, doctors and the Hilton hotels.

"The wages of sin don't compare with what you can make in the dress business," Coco advises a girl. And women's lib groups will find little comfort in: A woman needs independence, not equality. In most cases equality is a step down."

WHEN THE PLOT goes nowhere which is most of the time, another fashion show is dragged in -- the kind that have women sighing and men watching the models. The staging is about as elaborate as any musical comedy has boasted, with three sets on a revolving stage and a second staircase that materializes for a finale that is the biggest fashion show of all. Cecil Beaton designed the dresses and the sets but it is Michael Bennett who staged the sequences.

FOR THOSE who are interested in such things, the only Chanel creation in the show is the suit Miss Hepburn wears at the end.

As a musical "Coco" is really a fashion show set to music and the clothes are prettier than the tunes. Composer Andre Previn has provided a nothing score, a sort of synthetic music that now and then sounds as though it may be the real thing but which quickly proves to be artificial.

From the original New York production this touring company uses not only the star but George Rose, a durable and wonderful actor as Coco's lawyer; Jeanne Arnold as her assistant and Charlene Ryan as a tall and silent model who is featured in one dance number, "Fiasco."

AT THE END of the show and after a standing ovation Miss Hepburn spoke a few words in tribute to the late Coco Chanel. She called her "a remarkable creature who lived an extraordinary life."

"It is peculiar to feel she isn't somewhere listening," she continued.

Whether the character in "Coco" is really Coco is for others to say. It is difficult to separate Miss Hepburn from the role and I suspect the audience wouldn't want it any other way.