‘Irma La Duce’ production lacks zest: 2 stars

“Irma La Duce,” a 1960 musical, looks sanitized by today’s standards.

After presenting concert revivals of familiar classics like “Little Me” and “The Most Happy Fella,” the City Center Encores! season comes to a close with “Irma La Douce,” a long-forgotten 1960 musical that marks the first foreign work to be produced by the much beloved series.

To put things in perspective, at least one Encores! show each year tends to be a rarity with no commercial potential. Otherwise the series would be viewed as merely a breeding ground for future Broadway revivals.

Best known for a 1963 film version directed by Billy Wilder and starring Shirley MacLaine that removed all the songs, “Irma La Douce” is a French farce that was originally touted as being “intensely Parisian.” In other words, it was hip and sexy, although it looks sanitized by today’s standards.  

It concerns the romance between Irma (Jennifer Bowles), one of the most popular prostitutes in Paris, and Nestor (Rob McClure), a struggling law student who goes to extreme measures to become the only man in Irma’s life, namely impersonating an aging benefactor who will pay Irma to stay away from all men but Nestor.

Serious theater fans may be surprised to learn that famed international director Peter Brook (“The Mahabharata”) staged the musical in London and on Broadway.

Compared “The Most Happy Fella,” which marked the biggest Encores! production to date (38-person cast, 38-member orchestra), “Irma La Douce” is pretty small (16-person cast, 10-member orchestra).

While the premise of “Irma La Douce” is relatively thin and the farcical shenanigans produce few laughs, it has some attractive songs, particularly the duet “Our Language of Love.” Being an intimate piece, it would probably work better in a smaller space. John Doyle’s grim-looking production also lacks any sense of zest.  

McClure, who starred on Broadway in “Chaplin” and will return in “Honeymoon in Vegas,” delivers a breathless turn full of charm. Bowles, a “Matilda” cast member with a dance background, offers plenty of high kicks but not much star quality or sex appeal.

If you go: “Irma La Douce” plays through Sunday at City Center. West 55thStreet between Sixth and Seventh Avenues., nycitycenter.org.