By Karen Isaacs
It is always exciting to be in at the beginning of something that has great potential. Last summer, Goodspeed at Chester presented a “new” musical – My Paris. Now after more work, it is at Long Wharf through May 29. After New Haven, who knows how far it will travel. Some sort of New York production should be in its future.
In reality it is not a new musical but a substantial revision of a musical that started life in the 1990s. The famed French singer/composer Charles Aznavour wrote a musical about the life of Toulouse-Lautrec. During that period it had a brief run in London; most agreed including Aznavour that the production was poor and the English lyrics inadequate.
So, My Paris might have been buried in the cemetery of lost musicals. But some top notch Broadway talent found it and decided that it was worth resurrecting.
That process is still going on; the production at Long Wharf has substantial differences – and improvements – from the show seen in 2015 in Chester.
Alfred Uhry, who wrote Driving Miss Daisy, other plays and the book for the musicals The Robber Bridegroom and LoveMusik, took on the task for rewriting the book about the life of the famed artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Jason Robert Brown, an award winning composer, lyricist and arranger, signed on to write lyrics and do the musical adaptation. Of course, Aznavour gave them plenty to work with; over the years, he had written more than 30 songs for the show,; he has also written new songs specifically for this production.
Then director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall came on board.
My Paris tells the story of Lautrec who is best known for his iconic posters of Montmarte characters. His life has been immortalized in film and lore. The son of a nobleman, Lautrec was born with a congenital disease that caused his bones, particularly his leg bones to break easily. As a result he was under five feet tall. He escaped his disappointed father and his smothering mother to move to Paris and to paint. There he gravitated to Montmarte, which was certainly déclassé for a nobleman. He was introduced to the various performers, starving artists and the can-can dancers. He started creating the posters of the performers as advertising; they soon provided him with a steady income. But he also succumbed to the lure of Montmarte – excessive drinking particularly absinthe, a very strong, anise flavored liquor that is said to be addictive and a hallucinogen. While its addictive qualities have not been proven, the liquor is banned in the US and many European countries.
The musical focuses on his life in Paris and his relationship with several friends and the model and artist Suzanne Valadon. Valadon not only became a prominent artist in her own right, but she was the mother of artist Maurice Utrillo.
he play opens with Lautrec greeting us, but we are soon back at the country palace of his parents as they learn of his deformity. Marshall has created Lautrec as a child by using a puppet in a pram. His father seeks assurance that Lautrec will be able to ride and hunt, the father’s favorite activities besides affairs with other women. His mother wants to protect him.
As a young adult, Lautrec convinces his parents to let him go to Paris to study, but he soon finds his milieu in the bohemian Montmarte.
The production at Long Wharf differs from the one at Chester; several songs have been added and the show split into two acts. The dancing has also been beefed up.
Marshall has choreographed and directed the show with a polished touch. She cleverly produces the illusion of Lautrec’s shortness through the use of steps, chairs with lower seats and other devices. It helps that Bobby Steggert who plays Lautrec is not exceptional tall. She creates an almost living tableau to showcase some of Lautrec’s most famous posters. A failure is the attempt to show the allure of absinthe as the “green fairy” who randomly appears; it takes a while for the audience to grasp and is also obvious.
The set design by Derek McLane combined with the projections design by Olivia Sebesky shows us Parisian setting around 1900. The costume design by Paul Tazewell as well as the wigs (Leah Loukas) add, if not an authentic feel, one we are familiar with from films.
Aznavour’s melodies are delicious and for the most part Jason Robert Brown’s lyrics not only fit the music but let us see inside the characters. You feel as though you would be humming these if you heard them just a few more times. I particularly liked “Paris!” Vive La Vie,” “The Honor of the Family,” “What I Meant to Say,” and “Where Are You Going.”
The cast is excellent. Bobby Steggert has received numerous award nominations for his work and you can see why. He has created a fully dimensional character that you care about. He is a fine singer and in a few “dream moments” even dances. He is joined by two other performers from the original Chester show: Mara Davi as Suzanne Valadon and Donna English as Maman, Lautrec’s mother. Each has developed the characters more and show us multiple aspects of them. I particularly liked Davi. Both are excellent singers. The role of Papa is now played by Tom Hewitt and it has been expanded. Hewitt brings a strong presence to the stage, an aristocratic air and an excellent voice.
Lautrec’s three drinking buddies are roles that still need some development, but Andrew Mueller, John Riddle and Rachou do what they can with the roles while also playing other characters in the show.
I thoroughly enjoyed this show and would love to go back and see it again. It still needs work but it should a future.
Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through Sunday, May 1. For tickets call 203-787-4282 or visit longwharf.org.