The Lyceum, Alexandria's history museum, does not make you think of a Parisian cabaret. It is a smoke-free building, and Paris cabarets are deeply, permanently imbued with the aroma of cigarette smoke--from Gauloises or something similar--that has been soaking into the walls for a century or more.
The Lyceum's architecture is chastely colonial--straight lines; simple, functional design, recalling ancient Roman architecture, with toga-clad busts of stern patricians flanking the stage.
A Paris cabaret calls for art deco, gilded mirrors and walls covered in red satin.
Yet the differences disappeared and the Lyceum was transformed Saturday night into a Parisian cabaret when the lights went down and Robin Phillips Knop sang the opening words of "Milord":
"Allez, venez, Milord
Vous asseoir a ma table.
Il fait si froid dehors;
Ici, c'est confortable."
("Come, my lord,
Sit at my table.
It is so cold outside;
Here, it is comfortable.")
This quintessential cabaret song--a young woman coming on to a tourist who has been abandoned by his love--set the scene perfectly for Knop's elegantly scripted show, "Les Papillons de Nuit in the Music Halls of Paris 1900-1946," which was deftly directed by Christian Mendenhall.
The atmosphere was enhanced by changes in the Lyceum's usual decor. The chairs were regrouped around little cocktail tables, each illuminated by a candle.
At a table in the corner, you could buy a glass of wine, rouge or blanc, Perrier or, pour les Americains, Pepsi-Cola.
There were berets on the bartenders and accordionist Jerry Calderone, who also contributed to the atmosphere (the sound of an accordion is essential to a Paris cabaret). The ancient Roman busts donned berets and black mustaches for the occasion.
On the stage were a table and chair, a collection of wigs, hats and robes and a mirror that Knop used for quick costume changes onstage as she surveyed the styles and personalities of cabaret singers--whom she called "papillons de nuit," nocturnal butterflies--from the fin de siecle up to the arrival of the amplified guitar.
She has not only a voice (actually a range of vocal styles) ideal for such a historic survey; she is a polished actress, able to slip into one role after another as easily as she slips from an elegant Victorian hat and gown into a short skirt of the 1920s. She also moved easily back and forth between French and English (her own translations of the song lyrics) and even threw in a bit of German for "Lili Marlene," a favorite of troops on both sides in World War I.
She discussed the lives and sang the songs of several cabaret artists but gave special attention--rightly--to Edith Piaf. I was momentarily upset that she had omitted one of Piaf's best and most characteristic songs, "Je ne regrette rien," but she had saved it for an encore and then sang it beautifully.
Cabaret seems to be moving out of smoke-filled rooms full of serious drinkers and into new locations. It is now one of the primary attractions of the "In" series in the chapel of Mount Vernon College, and the great Angelina Reaux is now doing a German cabaret show at the Studio Theatre.
I suspect that this trend represents a reaction to the abuse of amplification, which has allowed not only rock musicians but opera tenors to entertain audiences of thousands in football stadiums. More and more people want to be close to the performer, interacting in a small room, like the audience at the Lyceum.
Before her encore, Knop had us singing along (in French) the refrain of "La Goulante de Pauvre Jean," known in English as "The Poor People of Paris": "Sans amour, on n'est rien de tout. (Without love, we are nothing at all.)"
Robin Phillips Knop's next show at the Lyceum, "Sentimental Journey," will begin March 17, with six performances running into April.