Last weekend, I checked out a Saturday performance of a new off-Broadway musical, 27 Rue de Fleurus
, which tells the story of the relationship between trailblazing writer and philosopher Gertrude Stein and her lifelong partner, Alice B. Toklas, which spanned most of the first half of the 20th century. Though much has been written about Stein's life, very little time has been devoted to Toklas' side of the story until now.
Featuring an all-female cast, mostly made up of Broadway veterans, 27 Rue de Fleurus
is narrated by Toklas, brilliantly played by Cheryl Stern. The structure of the production consists of Toklas leading us through time, speaking from the vantage point of the afterlife. Stein (Barbara Rosenblat) is also present, but while she would have had the center stage during their life together, Toklas keeps her at bay and tells their story as she remembers it. For all of her bluster, Stein's utter devotion to Toklas' quiet strength becomes more and more obvious as the play unfolds, because as she tries to downplay moments of weakness and imperfection, Toklas' character is always allowed to give the final word. The musical score is at once raunchy and tender, with songs like "Role Play", which describes their ways of keeping a married sex life interesting, and "Be My Wife", Stein's proposal to Toklas. Perhaps the most touching aspect of this production is the simplicity with which their relationship is dealt. It does not dwell specifically on the issue of Stein's sexual orientation, though she addresses it briefly and makes no apologies to the accusations of her disapproving brother, Leo Stein. Historical contemporaries such as Pablo Picasso, Sylvia Beach, and even Jean Harlow appear to spice up the plot, mostly during the "salon" scenes taking place in Stein and Toklas' living room at 27 Rue de Fleurus in France. Each one helps to complete the full portrait of the incredibly vibrant and fascinating life these two women led together in the heart of early 20th century intellectual discourse.
What we have here is a love story, fraught with jealousy and passion like others, but most of all, it celebrates the incredible bond between two women who decided to share their lives, even during a time when it was relatively unheard of. Gertrude Stein may have been a strong and formidable figure, but the lesson the audience comes away with is that she would not have been able to reach her full potential without the incredible support offered by her wife, Alice. It's an old story, to be sure. But when was the last time it was told about two women in such a traditional setting? That alone makes 27 Rue de Fleurus
worth an evening of your time.
Directed by Frances Hill, the production will be running until April 6th at Urban Stages (259 W. 30th St.), and you can buy tickets here.