“My Paris”

Susan Granger’s review of “My Paris” (Long Wharf Theater)

 

It was fascinating watching one of the final performances of this dazzling new musical about Belle Epoque artist Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec because, around us, were potential ‘investors’ considering moving it to Manhattan.

Inspired by French singer/songwriter Charles Aznavour’s short-lived “Lautrec” concept, it was workshopped at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris in Chester, then moved to Long Wharf in New Haven, and the potential is certainly there.

With a book by Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Robber Bridegroom”) and English lyrics/additional music by Jason Robert Brown (“The Bridges of Madison County”), it’s expertly staged by Tony Award-winner Kathleen Marshall, utilizing four talented on-stage musicians.

The only son of a swaggering nobleman (Tom Hewitt) who was disappointed that he was born with a congenital disease that crippled his legs, little Henri (Bobby Steggert) always loved to draw. When he grew up, he moved to his family’s apartment in Paris where, briefly, he studied art with Leon Bonnat.

But it was a chance visit to a seedy nightclub in bohemian Montmarte that changed his life. Settling into a tiny studio, he began to earn a living, sketching colorful advertising posters of street performers and can-can dancers even the club’s owner (Jamie Jackson). Henri’s favorite model was aspiring artist Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi), whom he deeply loved.

While subtly savvy Bobby Steggert is waiflike, director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall cleverly utilizes Derek McLane’s multi-tiered set to emphasize his deformed, diminutive stature.

What’s most impressive is how Paul Tazewell’s costumes, Donald Holder’s lighting and Olivia Sebesky’s projections create a vivid tableau, showcasing Lautrec’s most famous posters and the models who posed for them: La Goulue (Nikka Graff Lanzarone), Jane Avril (Erica Sweany), May Milton (Anne Horak), Yvette Guilbert (Kate Marilley), Valentin  (Timothy Hughes), Clown (Tiffany Mann), and le Chocolat (Darius Barnes). Magnifique!

So what doesn’t work?

The lamenting of Lautrec’s smothering Maman (Donna English) quickly becomes tedious, and the wraithlike Green Fairy (Erica Sweany), representing Lautrec’s toxic addiction to absinthe, is obtuse.

In addition, Suzanne Valadon’s alluring muse character needs to be fleshed out; in real life, she was the mother of artist Maurice Utrillo – as do the bland roles of Henri’s three art-school cohorts (John Riddle, Josh Grisetti, Andrew Mueller) who excel in the rousing “We Drink!” number.

I eagerly await the next incarnation of “My Paris” – with, perhaps, a more haunting, bittersweet title.