Monday, May 30, 2016

Three Musicals: My Paris, Anastasia, Presto Change-O

Mara Davi and Bobby Steggert in My Paris, at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre.. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The music in My Paris is breezy but it gives off the unmistakable whiff of melancholy and regret. It’s on the cusp of light jazz, honky-tonk and folk; it’s reminiscent of the sort of thing Django Reinhardt used to play in Paris in the twenties and thirties, but most of the time it sounds like the music chanteurs like Charles Aznavour and Charles Trenet are famous for. That’s no surprise, since Aznavour himself wrote the score, and even though Jason Robert Brown’s translations saddle it with banalities, sometimes of the self-help brand (one second-act number is called “You Do It for You”), the music is a good enough reason to check out this new musical about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre. (It was workshopped at the Goodspeed Opera House last summer.)

Aznavour, now ninety-two, originally wrote the score in 2000 for an unsuccessful West End show called Lautrec. This refurbished edition has a book by Alfred Uhry and Kathleen Marshall directed and choreographed it. And though the script is alternately overemphatic and underwritten and it takes the whole first act for the portrayal of the Parisian demi-monde in the late nineteenth century to acquire enough gravitas to make it convincing, it’s a noble effort to pull off an ambitious and difficult feat. Until the first-act closer, “Au Mirliton,” the numbers in which Henri (Bobby Steggert) discovers Montmartre in the company of a trio of art-school compadres (Josh Grisetti, Andrew Mueller and John Riddle), “We Drink!” and “Vive la Vie,” have a familiar Broadway-golden-age robustness; since they’re neither sexy nor sinister, they don’t feel truly grown-up, despite the occasional “fuck” in the lyrics. And the relationships between the aristocratic Henri and his cold, disapproving father (Tom Hewitt), who has never accepted his son’s physical deformities and sensitivity, and his loving but overprotective mother (Donna English) are trite. But at the end of act one Henri hatches the idea of promoting Le Mirliton, his crowd’s favorite Montmartre dive, with a series of posters, and they come to life in an ingeniously conceived and executed number in which a frame wheels around the stage capturing a variety of outré local types we recognize from Lautrec’s work, including Bruant (Jamie Jackson, in the role Peter Gallagher played in Lautrec), with his sweeping black cape and black gaucho’s hat and wide crimson scarf. At that point the musical, heretofore vibrant mostly in Derek McLane’s set, Paul Tazewell’s costumes and of course Aznavour’s melodies, comes fully to life.

The set consists of five slightly lopsided tiers, and though it’s used, with only the addition of the odd piece of furniture, for the Toulouse-Lautrec mansion and Henri’s tiny Paris flat, it’s meant to evoke a café, with four marvelous musicians (Sean Rubin on bass, Jeffery Carlson on guitar and mandolin, Andrew Smith on violin, and musical director/conductor David Gardos on piano and accordion) on the top level. The backdrop is a series of picture frames of all sizes and shapes on which we see – courtesy of projection designer Olivia Sebesky – rotating images by Lautrec. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a more evocative or successful use of projections in a musical. The downside of this lovely set is that it constrains movement, so every time Marshall figures out a new way to snake the dancers through its tortuous corridors you want to applaud. Aside from “Au Mirliton” she does it most effectively in the “L’Amour Fait Mal” number toward the end of act two, which chronicles Henri’s physical deterioration: he becomes addicted to absinthe, embodied by The Green Fairy (danced by Erica Sweany), and frequents whorehouses and opium dens. The show’s high point, however, is the sweet and touching straw-hat-and-cane number “Bonjour, Suzanne,” in which Henri, who has fallen in love with his model, Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi), fantasizes being able to court her whole, in a world where his legs work perfectly so he can dance with her, and where he’s tall enough to tower above her. (The men of the chorus provide benches so he can glide behind her or else lift him into the air.)

In the New York shows I’ve seen him perform in (Giant, Big Fish, Mothers and Sons) Steggert has struck me as bland, without an interesting personality or a memorable vocal style, so the idea of casting him in as complicated a role as Toulouse-Lautrec, whose mocking wit is generally directed at himself, puzzled me. But his hard work pays off in this role, as does his little-boy quality, which the writing of both the book and the lyrics forces him to play against. He started to win me over in “To Paint,” the penultimate song in the first act, which has a very tricky vocal line, and by “Bonjour, Suzanne” he had me. His final number – his valedictory, “The Windmill Turns” – is very stirring. (It’s also beautifully lit by Donald Holder.) Davi, who plays opposite him, suggests a cross between Julianne Moore and the musical-theatre star Kate Baldwin, and on a ballad like “What I Meant to Say” her warm contralto enhances Aznavour’s music. The show breaks down, I think, in the writing of the character, which doesn’t put her together in a way that makes sense. Henri’s friends depict her as a femme fatale, but with Henri she’s unfailingly kind and supportive – though she’s also a liar who presents herself to him, for some reason, as a bareback rider in a circus. She’s a talented artist herself who takes lessons for Henri, and for a while they’re lovers, before she drifts away from him, though the script never tells us precisely why. She’s not bitter and restless, like the whore Tim Roth’s Van Gogh takes up with in Robert Altman’s great Vincent and Theo. In fact, I kept waiting to find out that the reason she made up the circus story is that she’s really selling herself, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. There’s a difference between writing a mystery woman and just not thinking through a character.

Mary Beth Peil, Christy Altomare, and Derek Klena (centre) in the Hartford Stage's Anastasia. (Photo: Peter Casolino)

The title character in the musical Anastasia (at Hartford Stage) is a mystery even to herself. At least, that’s how she’s written in the play by Marcelle Maurette and Guy Bolton and the 1956 movie version that won an Academy Award for Ingrid Bergman. The material, inspired by the story of Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the Romanoff princess Anastasia, having somehow escaped the cellar where the rest of her family was executed summarily during the Russian Revolution and having suffered from amnesia in and out of an institution. In the play and movie an adventurer named Boutine hires Anna to impersonate the princess so that she can become the heiress to the Romanoff millions, currently in the hands of the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, Anastasia’s aging, heartbroken grandmother, who emigrated from St. Petersburg some years before the revolution. But Boutine gets more than he bargained for, when Anna begins to remember fragments of Anastasia’s past that he knows he didn’t teach her.

It’s a very appealing romance, even though it can’t help but romanticize, too, Nicholas and Alexandra, two of modern history’s prime dunces. That’s not really a problem; after all, Dickens did the same for the aristocrats caught in the murderous whirlwind of the French Revolution. And the first few minutes of its latest incarnation, which Terrence McNally adapted from the 1997 animated musical with songs by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), is quite nice. The Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil), departing for Paris, gives six-year-old Anastasia (Nicole Scimeca) a music box and, while the snow swirls outside the palace windows, teaches her the song that goes along with it, a graceful melody called “Once Upon a December.” But what follows, though it involves live people, feels like it’s still a cartoon. A young go-getter named Dmitry (Derek Klena) and a charming crook named Vlad Popov (John Bolton) scheme to find the right actress to play the part of the Romanov princess rumored to be alive, but the young women they audition are comically hopeless. They find Anya (Christy Altomare), a street sweeper, by accident, note her resemblance to Anastasia and her quick-study eagerness, and they become a team, encouraging each other with relentlessly upbeat travel songs. Anya doesn’t carry an air of mystery, despite the ghosts that haunt her dreams and her sudden bursts of memory; she’s more like a feisty yet essentially insipid modern-era Disney heroine (even though the cartoon Anastasia wasn’t produced by Disney). And though naturally Anya and Dmitry fall for each other, the musical is not so much a romance as a rousing adventure that leads them to Paris, where a disenfranchised community of white Russians still does obeisance to Maria Feodorovna. The danger comes from the Soviets, who send the Deputy Commissioner, Gleb (Manoel Felciano), after Anya to either bring her back to Leningrad, the former St. Petersburg, for punishment if she’s an imposter or shoot her if she’s the real princess. And even Gleb isn’t much of a villain – he wants to be a good Bolshevik but he has unresolved feelings about the part his father, a guard, played in the killing of the Romanoffs. And his first scene with Anya (while she’s still living in Leningrad) begins in aw-shucks comedy.

Just about everything in the movie feels like it never quite made the transition from the children’s animated musical it began as. I didn’t see the 1997 movie, so I can only guess which songs Ahrens and Flaherty wrote for it and which are new additions, but even the ones with pretty tunes have mundane lyrics, and some of the numbers are nakedly familiar or downright ridiculous. “Learn to Do It,” a trio for Anya, Dmitry and Vlad while the men are trying to instruct their new charge on how to act like a royal, is a retread of “The Rain in Spain” from My Fair Lady, and when they get to Paris and dress her up to cross paths with the Dowager Empress at the ballet, she’s Eliza at the ball. The duet between Vlad and his old flame, the Dowager Empress’s companion Countess Lily (the charmless Caroline O’Connor), might have been written for the secondary comic characters in a Sigmund Romberg operetta. The second-act opener, “Paris Holds the Key (to Your Heart),” evokes “Be Our Guest” from the Disney Beauty and the Beast, with parodies of 1927 Paris celebrities like Picasso, Gertrude Stein and Isadora Duncan rather than a tea service and silverware. The “Paris” number is the musical’s lowest ebb, what with a little boy and a young couple scaling a diminutive version of the Eiffel Tower upstage while the archetypes cavort foolishly downstage. To say Anastasia has major tone problems would be an understatement – and its ending makes absolutely no sense. Only Peil injects any authenticity into the proceedings; her Dowager Empress seems to have been imported from another musical – the one I wished I’d been able to watch.

Alexander Dodge designed the unattractive, monolithic sets, which are already set up for the Broadway barn the show is sure to inhabit next season, and Aaron Rhyne supervised the video and projections, which are downright ugly, though the opening night audience applauded loyally for each one. Attending the show, which was staged by Hartford Stage’s artistic director, Darko Tresnjak, and choreographed by Peggy Hickey, is more like spending three hours at a theme park. “For those who like that sort of thing,” as Miss Jean Brodie used to say, “that is the sort of thing they like.” As for me, I went home and dug out my old vinyl recording of the 1965 musical Anya, a little-known musical of the Anastasia material with Bob Wright and Chet Forrest songs culled from Rachmaninoff themes. I don’t know what the book of that show was like, but the characters on the recording sound like adults.

Barbara Walsh and Michael Rupert in Presto Change-O, at the Barrington Stage. (Photo: Scott Barrow)

Presto Change-O is a brand-new musical, developed at and produced by Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., and it marks the beginning of the summer theatre season in the Berkshires. With book and lyrics by Eric Price and music by Joel Waggoner, the show revolves around an inviting subject: three generations of magicians – though in the opening trio, “One, Two, Three,” we have no idea that the old pro Sheldon (Lenny Wolpe), the flashy, comeback-seeking Lance Presto (Michael Rupert) and the ballsy young Michael (Jarrod Spector) are related, or how much water has flowed under the bridge. We learn in flashbacks that Sheldon is the veteran, a hero to many subsequent magic men, but his career foundered some time ago and Lance, who originally came to him for training and wound up marrying his daughter Mary (Barbara Walsh), took advantage of his misfortune to take over his coveted Las Vegas gig. Mary, who was working as Lance’s assistant, took the betrayal hard and walked out on him. Some years later, Michael, who learned the trade at his father’s hand, invented a trick that his father stole from him, and his revenge effectively finished both their careers. Now Michael performs endurance stunts. His latest, an attempt to remain inside a block of ice in Central Park for three days, proves to be too much for him; he abandons it and winds up, cold and sick, on the doorstep of his estranged dad, who is preparing for a meeting with NBC for a possible TV spot. When Lance’s latest assistant, a young woman named Tina (Jenni Barber) who also keeps house for him, calls Mary to rescue her ailing son, the whole family winds up in the same place for the first time in a dozen years – including Lance’s brother Arthur (Bob Walton), who has cooked up a plan to bring the three generations together on a cruise ship.

I love shows that incorporate magic, and the director, Marc Bruni, working with illusion designer Joseph Wartnerchaney, keeps the trompe l’oeil spinning around Derek McLane’s wittily dressed set (which includes a trick panel). Several songs are premised on magic tricks, including “Ta-Da!,” in which Tina roams around Lance’s living room executing one after another while she explains to Michael that she’s always dreamed of being “the one who says, ‘Ta-da!’” In a knockout of a number in the middle of the first act, “One Hand to the Next,” we see how magic is passed on from one generation to the next through the medium of a little red ball that keeps disappearing and reappearing as it’s transferred from one magician to another. The idea of Presto Change-O is that magic is a metaphor – for family, for romance, for change, for reconciliation. In act two Michael and Tina, who have fallen in love, sing an utterly winning duet called “If I Were Magic.” And sometimes magic in this play means real magic: Sheldon, who has episodes of forgetfulness and performs for an audience of his own imagining now that his career is long vanished, has lately been encountering unexplained events – that red ball slipping unaccountably out of sight and popping up again in the damnedest places. (Act one ends with a particularly nifty magic coup by a ghostly perpetrator.)

I had a lovely time at this musical for the most part. Bruni and the choreographer Chris Bailey have staged it deftly, in a tossed-off style that is just right for the subject matter, and the cast performs admirably, especially Wolpe, whom I last saw as Julian Marx in Susan Stroman’s Bullets Over Broadway musical. Wolpe is a lovable character actor whose art is indistinguishable from that of the seasoned conjurer, the art of making it all look easy. He underplays with gallantry and heart. My second favorite performer on the stage is Spector, who has played Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys on Broadway and Barry Mann in Bruni’s production of Beautiful and who seems like a strong bet to play any of the colorful juvenile roles in the musical canon – beginning, in fact, with the neurotic playwright in Bullets Over Broadway (a musical that never got the chance it deserved).

Unfortunately, Presto Change-O suffers from the usual twenty-first-century musical book problem: there scarcely is one. Musical numbers occur every five minutes, so even though the narrative is complicated, Price has no time to develop it. Most young writers of musicals haven’t learned the lesson that songs can’t substitute for a good book – that if there are too many of them, they become a distraction, like carpets thrown over gaps in the floor. It’s instructive that in Jack Viertel’s wonderful book The Secret Life of the American Musical, about how musicals are structured, he rarely quotes lyrics; when he wants to point to a significant development in a great show like Guys and Dolls or Gypsy, he generally replicates a piece of dialogue. The ideas in Presto Change-O are smart and they engage our emotions, as we always want musicals to, but because they’re shortchanged in the book and shortcut in the songs, often they end up melting into sap. The best thing Price and Waggoner could do to improve this musical is to cut one-third of the songs and use the dialogue to strengthen the relationships.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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