Sunday, May 15, 2016

Theater Review: My Paris -- Long Wharf

The cast of My Paris. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Aznavour’s Musical about Toulouse-Lautrec is Très Bon 
By Lauren Yarger
Bienvenue to the seedy world of late 19th-century Paris, where painter Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge come to life on the canvas of the stage at Long Wharf Theatre.

My Paris features a score and lyrics by the legendary Charles Aznavour, who has written more than 1,000 songs (you probably know a lot of them) and sold almost 200 million records since beginning his career in 1933. He gets a hand from American theater legend Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, The Bridges of Madison County, Parade, 13, Honeymoon in Vegas and Songs for a New World) who writes the English lyrics and provides musical adaptions for the show’s 18 tunes.

If that isn’t enough to get you saying “Oui, Oui,” how about throwing in Pulitzer-Prize winner Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy, The Robber Bridegroom) as the book writer? And that’s not all this show has going for it. Kathleen Marshall (Nice Work If You Can Get It, Anything Goes among others) directs and choreographs. You heard it here first: it will be no surprise if this show, which originated at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theater last summer, finds its way to another city of lights on a Broadway stage.

Set Designer Derek McLane uses big brush strokes to wrap us in the shabby, gilded hall, where projections designed by Olivia Sebesky bring the Moulin Rouge to colorful life. So do the four musicians (Directed by David Gardos), playing on upper levels of the platforms separating the stage where tables and chairs create the nightclub setting. Those platforms also serve another purpose: they allow Marshall to strategically place the characters to help create the illusion of Toulouse-Lautrec’s small size. Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec is known for deformities in his legs that left him just 4 feet, 8 inches tall -- much shorter than actor Bobby Steggert, who plays the painter.

He was nobility – born to Alphonse (Tom Hewitt), a count who struggles with a boy who can’t ride to the hunt like a man, and Adele (Donna English), an overprotective mother who follows her son to Paris when he decides to try to make it on his own as a painter. He finds acceptance in Paris among friends who introduce him to slummy nightclubs in the Montmarte section of Paris. He finds a niche painting the nightlife there and of people like comedian and club owner Aristide Bruant (a saucy Jamie Jackson) and the girls who dance the can-can.

He even finds some romance with Suzanne Valadon (an excellent Mara Davi who is in wonderful voice), a mysterious woman with painting talent of her own who poses for Toulouse-Lautrec. But the Green Fairy (Erica Sweany) – alcohol – calls to him as a way to drown out his pain and disappointments.

In Uhry’s expert hands, the story plays out like a painting of the artist’s life rather than a biographical recounting of it. Marshall guides the actors in subtle movement and choreography to Aznavour’s enchanting tunes. It’s an emotional two hours during which the painter’s portrait comes to life and we find ourselves in old Paris soaking in the atmosphere and admiring Designer Paul Tazewell’s richly elegant, detailed period costumes.

The show has got a lot of potential and could be a contender for a spot on the Great White Way (and we can only smile to think of the choreography that will be possible on a larger stage). Here are some suggestions I think would make that smoother transition:
  • Tighten the book a bit. Even at just two hours and 10 minutes, it drags a few times and the reasons behind the end of Suzanne and Toulouse-Toulouse-Lautrec’s romance aren’t clear.
  • Recast Toulouse-Lautrec. Though Steggert is a seasoned performer on Broadway (and in fact originated the role at the Norma Terris), he is miscast here. We need a more mature, less attractive looking guy in the role to be able to sympathize more. Steggert appears to exude no emotion or passion (especially in a scene where he tries to forget his disappointments with Suzanne by turning to the prostitutes in the clubs) and isn’t believable.
  • Get rid of the creepy puppet wheeled around to depict Toulouse-Lautrec as an invalid boy. While the thought has merit when Toulouse-Lautrec refers to himself as a person with a marionette’s legs, the effect is to invoke laughter while the little puppet voice is supplied by another actor instead of sympathy for the character. A real, live boy in that chair will have greater impact.
My Paris runs on the main stage at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through May 29. Performances are ; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 pm; Matinees Wednesday and Sunday at 2 pm, Saturdays at 3 pm. Tickets $25 to $85
 (203) 787-4282; www.longwharf.org.

Full Casting:
Darius Barnes…. Le Chocolat/Ensemble

Mara Davi…. Suzanne Valadon

Donna English…. Maman (Adele)

Josh Grisetti…. Rachou/Doctor/Ensemble

Anne Horak…. May Milton/Ensemble

Thomas Hewitt…. Papa (Alphonse)

Timothy Hughes…. Valentin/Ensemble

Jamie Jackson…. Aristide Bruant/Bonnat/Ensemble

Nikka Graff Lanzarone…. La Gouloue/Ensemble

Tiffany Mann…. Cha-U-Ka-O/ Little Henri/Ensemble

Kate Marilley…. Yvette Guilbert/Ensemble

Andrew Mueller…. Anquentin, Ensemble

John Riddle…. Grenier/Ensemble

Bobby Steggert…. Henri de Toulouse-Toulouse-Lautrec-Toulouse-Lautrec

Erica Sweany…. Jane Avril, The Green Fairy, Ensemble

Additional credits:
Associate Direction/Associate Choreography by David Eggers, Lighting Design by Don Holder, Sound Design by Brian Ronan

Additional note: I didn't mention a missed catch of a prop from the stage to a stagehand waiting in the aisle which resulted in the cane flying into the audience. Another critic reported that the same thing happened at another performance where she was struck by the cane. Maybe a rethink of that part of the choreograph is needed?

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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