Cory Michaud (left) and Anna Maria Kaufmann in a scene from ‘It’s COCO!’ an original, locally made operetta that has a sold-out run this week in Red Deer. The show was created by Cheryl Cooney and Kaufmann. (Contributed photo).

Cory Michaud (left) and Anna Maria Kaufmann in a scene from ‘It’s COCO!’ an original, locally made operetta that has a sold-out run this week in Red Deer. The show was created by Cheryl Cooney and Kaufmann. (Contributed photo).

Red Deer-made operetta ‘It’s COCO!’ wows a full-house crowd

The original show about Coco Chanel was created by Cheryl Cooney and Anna Maria Kaufmann

Coco Chanel swept into Red Deer’s Scott Block Theatre on Thursday night with her black bobbed hair and trademark jacket and charmed a full-house audience with the tumultuous story of her life.

“A labour of love,” as the all-new operetta It’s COCO! has been called, doesn’t begin to describe the Herculean effort it must have taken to write, score, and stage this extravaganza.

That it was created in Red Deer — starring mostly local performers — is all the more remarkable.

Local composer/pianist Cheryl Cooney, wrote the buoyant musical score, including tangos and French music hall tunes among her many influences.

Lacombe native Anna Maria Kaufmann, a professional opera singer (she created the role of Christina of Phantom of the Opera in Germany), not only played the title role with great aplomb, but also co-wrote the show’s lyrics with Cooney.

The two women partnered in 2018 to create an opera about a strong woman — and they don’t come gutsier than Chanel.

The fashion icon’s rags-to-riches journey, recounted in this week’s sold-out run of It’s COCO!, mirrored the highs and lows of the 20th Century. The well-paced production, directed by former Red Deer College chair of performing arts, Darold Roles, starts with Chanel leaving the convent as a poor 18-year-old waif in 1901.

Although essentially an orphan, Coco soon uses her revolutionary tastes and shrewd social-climbing skills, to bulldoze her way to success in the hedonistic 1920s, when she dresses the likes of Nijinsky, Garbo and Dietrich.

Chanel is credited with freeing thousands of women from the bondage of corsets by introducing the “casual chic” as a feminine style. But being a mere couturier wasn’t enough for the designer, who extended her influence into the perfume and jewelry spheres.

There’s tragedy in this tale as Chanel’s image sank after the horrors of war (she was accused of being a collaborator with the Nazis), leading to her late-life struggle to stay relevant in the post-modern world.

All of these epochs were imaginatively captured in It’s COCO!, despite a minimalist set and a small cast of six in this workshop production.

Although there’s no dialogue, there was no need for a libretto since Serge Beliveau delivered tongue-in-cheek narration.

Lending strong vocal support to Kaufmann was Sharon Braun, Cory Michaud, Angela Siemens, and Ron Schuster. The talented players stepped into a variety of roles — from Chanel’s sister to the Duke of Westminster and Chanel’s’ other lovers. They also formed a sort of Greek Chorus, informing the audience what the world was saying about Chanel.

Kaufmann shined as Coco, using her formidable vocal range and winning smile to capture the audience’s affinity — much as the real Chanel must have used her charms to lasso wealthy playboys and nobles.

Among her many stand-out songs is a magical and haunting violin-plucked tune about Chanel No. 5 perfume. Kaufmann also memorably sang about love, capturing the longing in Could It Be You? and the sweet hopefulness in an early song about first love “burning brightly.”

Cooney’s striking compositions, performed by a nine-person orchestra conducted by Steve Sherman, were constantly rewarding. But the songs’ rather detached lyrics only served to move the story forward.

This operatic tale would have been more compelling if the songs dug deeper into Chanel’s complex character.

In Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver!, Dickens’s little orphan sits locked in a basement plaintively singing Where is Love?

It’s COCO! has no such soul-revealing moments.

Instead, chronological scenes tick off highlights of Chanel’s life, without delving too far into her own feelings about what happens to her, such as when lover after lover keeps her as a sideline while marrying other women, or even into the basic question: what fuelled her relentless ambition?

In the end, audience members can be wowed by Chanel’s accomplishments but are no closer to knowing the woman.

Of course, this kind of omission can be reworked in future. Cooney and Kaufmann have certainly shown they have the combined talents to take this tale as far as it can go.



lmichelin@reddeeradvocate.com

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Live theatre

 

Anna Maria Kaufmann stars as Coco Chanel in ‘It’s COCO!’ a made-in-Red Deer operetta, that’s having a sold-out run this week at the Scott Block Theatre. The show was created by Cheryl Cooney and Kaufmann. (Contributed photo).

Anna Maria Kaufmann stars as Coco Chanel in ‘It’s COCO!’ a made-in-Red Deer operetta, that’s having a sold-out run this week at the Scott Block Theatre. The show was created by Cheryl Cooney and Kaufmann. (Contributed photo).