BWW Review: MY PARIS in New Haven
The title is vague. Paris belongs to everyone who has visited the City of Light. But in the new play by Pulitzer prize, Oscar, and Tony award-winning Alfred Uhry, My Paris chronicles the life of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, who illustrated Paris's raucous Montmartre district in perpetually popular posters.
If I were to capture the story of Toulouse-Lautrec and his relationships with Paris's underclass in one word, it would be resilience. Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa (played by Bobby Steggert) was born to Alphonse (Tom Hewitt) and Adèle (Donna English), a count and countess who were first cousins. As a result, their son suffered all his life from a congenital disorder that left him with short legs and a frail body. His face was also very unattractive, and he was resigned to being scoffed at and rejected. When his parents finally let him study drawing in Paris, he is accepted by his fellow students and the marginalized people who lived and worked in Montmartre. He discovers alcohol and women and gains enough self-confidence to propose that night club owner Aristide Bruant (Jamie Jackson) hire him to advertise with posters. He had friends and lovers, achieved great success at what he loved to do, and died at the young age of 36 of alcoholism and syphilis. That's the story of My Paris (and pretty much the 1952 film Moulin Rouge).
The theme of the heartbreak of loneliness and trying to fit in is universal and timeless, and Alfred Uhry portrays this clearly in all the characters. Steggert is outstanding as Toulouse-Lautrec, giving him dignity and strength without evoking self-pity or bitterness. Uhry also adds the character of Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi), a self-invented woman with a past, an artist's model, and a painter in her own right, as well as the mother of the artist Maurice Utrillo. The relationship between Valadon and Toulouse-Lautrec is bittersweet and at times heart-wrenching, and the chemistry between them is obvious and the differing poles from which they come are handled movingly and with credibility. The other young woman in his life in Montmartre is the Green Fairy who represents absinthe. She is played by Erica Sweany, who also portrays Jane Avril). Sweany is seductive, mysterious and exceptionally graceful. Hewitt is wonderful as the proud aristocrat who has a hard time accepting that his heir can never meet his expectations. English is amazing as his long-suffering, uncomplaining wife and balances her protectiveness of their son with the understanding that she must let go. The entire ensemble of Darius Barnes (as Le Chocolat), Josh Grisetti (Rachou and the doctor), Anne Horak (May Milton), Timothy Hughes (Valetin), Nikka Graff Lanzarne (La Goulue), Tiffany Mann (Little Henri and Cha-U-Ka-O), Kate Marilley (Yvette Guilbert), Andrew Mueller Anquentin), and John Riddle (Grenier) are all exceptional singers and dancers as well as actors. They move through the show in various roles with easy fluidity and a joyful spirit.
Charles Aznavour's songs are pleasant and complementary to the story. Jason Robert Brown adapted the lyrics and music. Kathleen Marshall's direction and choreography are superb, especially since the stage at the Long Wharf is not huge. The costumes by Paul Tazewell are brilliant. He made Steggert look shorter with the cut of the pants and he captured the times and look of Toulouse-Lautrec's famous posters, which are projected creatively by Olivia Sebesky onto Derek McLane's jewel box of a set. McLane also made Steggert look shorter with subtle tricks such as using a lower chair and small bed in different scenes. Kudos also to Leah Loukas for hair and wig design. Claire Zoghb's program design is, as always, just right for the show.
Hopefully, this production will follow the Long Wharf Theatre's past productions of My Name is Asher Lev and Satchmo at the Waldorf to New York City. Most of the cast and production crew worked on it since its beginnings at the Goodspeed Opera House. In the meantime, go to the Long Wharf Theatre at 222 Sargent Drive in New Haven. Call for tickets now at 203-787-4282 because they are selling out quickly. Visit www.longwharf.org. My Paris runs through May 29. (Fingers crossed for an extension.)
One more thing. This is the last of the regular season at the Long Wharf Theatre, but wait - there's more! The Bikinis, a 60s musical beach part will return from July 13-31. It's a fun show about three friends who formed a 60s girl group. The show features more than 30 hits from the 50s, 60s and 70s, and we promise it's a blast!