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Revew: Under The Bridge- Not Since Kelly

Audiences are sure to love Under The Bridge, the new Kathie Lee Gifford/David Pomeranz children's musical. I'm just not certain many of those audiences will contain people from within a hundred mile radius of its current home at Off-Broadway's Zipper Theatre. Take this production to some town where good intentions and a strong cast are considered more important than a reasonably competent text and you got a smash hit.

This is the kind of musical that makes its supporters say to its detractors, "Oh lighten up! It's a musical, not Shakespeare. Just relax and enjoy it!" It's the kind of musical that makes people who attend theatre two or three times a year grumble, "This is one of the best shows I've ever seen and those elitist New York critics had to close it!"

And if Under The Bridge were the kind of children's musical that you could see for ten or twenty bucks in a little Off-Off Broadway house I'd say it was a nice first effort by a bookwriter/lyricist who might want to check out a couple of Lehman Engel books on musical theatre writing before starting her next project. But since a family of four would have to pay over $200 for full price tickets to this intimate little tuner which too often resembles an odd mixture of The Baker's Wife and Bajour, I feel obligated to judge it by higher standards.

Here's just a sampling of the delights that await you these days at the Zipper:

* An opening number with a lot of borderline sexual imagery of the show's locale, such as "Paris is your courtesan... She takes good care of her man." (Yoo-hoo, there are kids watching!) This is followed by a parade of rhymes such as "She will flambe' you, sorbet you, Perrier you / Crudite, consomme, cafe au lait you." I had a kinky girlfriend once who tried to flambe' me, but exactly how does a city Perrier you?

* A friendly gypsy who not only tells accurate fortunes but refuses an invitation to a free holiday dinner served to the homeless, saying "We are not homeless. It wouldn't be right."

* A cheery, but culturally insensitive number called "Christmas Is Everyone's Holiday" where the entire cast passes among themselves a very, very long string of linked wieners. And when the song is over they put the food back into a bucket, presumable to be cooked up and eaten by the homeless.

* An 11 o'clock number about taking a bath, where the lead character strips down to his underwear, throws some water on his face, then puts his clothes back on.

Wait, I haven't even gotten to the plot yet. I haven't read the musical's source material, Natalie Savage Carlson's book The Family Under The Bridge, but Gifford's adaptation, while heavy on wide-eyed sentiment that often supersedes common sense, is especially lacking in story. Act I presents itself with what could be some interesting conflicts, but they are quickly resolved or just tossed aside. Act II does absolutely nothing but mark time until the happy ending. (Oh damn, I gave it away!)

If you insist on knowing, the story takes place in 1953 Paris, where grizzly old Armand (Ed Dixon) contentedly lives his homeless life on the bit of turf he's claimed under a bridge. Everyone knows that's where Armand lives. Everyone except Madame Calcet (Jacquelyn Piro), a newly-widowed, recently evicted mother of three who has now settled her tykes (Maggie Watts, Andrew Blake Zutty and Alexa Ehrlich) smack in the middle of Armand's living room. The fight over who gets to live on this prime real estate (Left Bank Story?) is almost immediately compromised and he allows them to stay, while making it clear that he despises "starlings". (That's his word for children; "starlings". He says it a lot and it gets annoying very quickly.)

When morning comes, mom goes off to work and leaves the kiddies alone with this stranger who dislikes her as much as she dislikes him. Nice parenting. When Armand discovers they can sing he secretly takes the starlings (See how annoying it gets?) to a shopping center and has them entertain the crowd for spare change. This could get the plot moving a bit, except Calcet learns of it and immediately squashes the plan before they can even go back for an encore. Two ladies sarcastically named "Do-Gooders" by the authors (Thursday Farrar and Tamra Hayden) sing a tune called "Do-Gooders Lament" and are pretty much presented as the bad guys for wanting the children placed someplace safer, but nothing ever becomes of them. Seems they're all sing and no action.

Pomeranz comes up with some pretty, if not especially memorable, tunes of Parisian flavor, but his best number, the immensely hummable "Paris" (that flambe'/Perrier song) sounds just a little too much like Richard Rodgers' opening waltz from Carousel. Gifford's lyrics are serviceable, featuring standard imagery pertaining to love and families and growing up and such.

Whatever pleasures are to be had from Under The Bridge can be mostly credited to its strong singing and acting cast. Ed Dixon is a robust delight, in fine voice and sparkling humor. Oddly, he's the only character who speaks with a French accent; one so exaggerated you'd think he was playing an elderly poodle in a Disney cartoon. Jacquelyn Piro has the thankless task of playing straight for Dixon while being in mourning for her husband, protective of her children and afraid for her future without much help from the authors. She makes her too few moments when she can play a bit with the kids warm and charming, but the score gives her little opportunity for musical warmth. What she does have displays appealingly strong pipes with a dramatic flare. Florence Lacey, an accomplished musical theatre veteran, deserves better than her nonsensical gypsy role and should receive serious Obie Award consideration for being able to say her lines with a straight face. Watts, Zutty and Ehrlich all sing very nicely and make a delightful trio of starlings.

Jim Kronzer's set is made up almost entirely of window shutters, inventively hinting of the crowded city, although I'm not sure why the bridge is also made of them. Still, it's kinda pretty under Chris Lee's lights. But the small playing area is too crowded and seems to severely limit director Eric Schaeffer's staging options.

The trouble with accepting a show like Under The Bridge as appropriate for children is that you're teaching them early on that the plot and characters in a musical need not be reasonably developed and the songs don't necessarily have to advance the story or tell us much about the people singing them. I mean, imagine what kind of Broadway musicals we'd have today if we weren't taught as kids that... Wait. Never mind.


Photos by Joan Marcus. Top: Ed Dixon
Middle: Alexa Ehrlich, Ed Dixon, Maggie Watts, Andrew Blake Zutty
Bottom: Andrew Blake Zutty, Jacquelyn Piro, Ed Dixon, Maggie Watts, Alexa Ehlich


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From This Author Michael Dale