Described as “the most famous woman you’ve never heard of”, the provocative, obscurely legendary French lesbian-chanteuse-socialite-actress-author-sensation Suzy Solidor, once the toast of Paris, is celebrated in a new production call All I Want is One Night, imported to New York from London as part of the ongoing “Brits Off-Broadway” series at the 59E59 theater complex. It’s a curious mixture of low camp, high drama and cabaret that shines some perfumed wattage on one of the world’s once-illustrious, now-forgotten icons from the same nightclub world as Édith Piaf, Josephine Baker and Mistinguett.
The star is British opera singer Jessica Walker, who, even after lowering her voice several octaves, never achieves the sultry throatiness of the flamboyant Suzy, but she still dominates the show with ersatz artistry. The real Suzy (1900-1983) dressed like an admiral and enchanted packed houses with her sexual ambivalence. In 1932 she became the first woman in France to own a nightclub, “La Vie Parisienne”, dispensing risqué songs, seductive anecdotes and erotic poems to eager customers seated at red tablecloths and lit by candlelight, from a tiny stage adorned by a revolving display of 225 famous portraits of herself, painted in various stages of glamour and nudity by a coterie of admirers, including Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy and Tamara de Lempicka.
Between two world wars, “La vie Parisienne” was the rage of Paris nightlife. Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier and Mistinguett were passionate regulars. During the German occupation, Suzy royally entertained the Nazis who invaded Paris as they darkened the City of Light (it was rumored that she even bedded Adolf Hitler) and after the war the French denounced her and tried to convict her as a Nazi collaborator. She fled to the South of France where she ran an antique shop in the village of Haut de Cagnes above the Mediterranean and made occasional appearances recreating her greatest torch songs for houses packed with tourists who didn’t seem to mind being double charged for watered-down champagne.
It was there that I was lucky enough to see her perform the eight songs that comprise the musical portions of All I Want is One Night, translated into English by Ms. Walker, accompanied by Joseph Atkins on accordion and piano. Swigging brandy, sitting on the laps of women customers, she simulates the rise and fall of an incomparable femme fatale with a mix of sensuality and sadness. When I saw her in the 1970s singing “Lili Marlene” as a tribute to Dietrich in her club in Haut Cagnes, a life of self-indulgence and self-destruction, fueled by years of alcohol and drugs, had left her bloated and bedraggled, but that smoky voice was still captivating. Some of the flavor of free love Suzy Solidor was selling in that bygone cabaret era comes through again in this uneven but fascinating show. It’s the kind of rarefied experience you only get these days in New York after dark.