“My Paris” - The City That Once Was

 By Marlene S. Gaylinn

When we visited Paris and the popular, Moulin Rouge, several years after World War II, Monmartre’s hub of international, freethinking creative minds, had already faded along with its bawdy nightlife. The neon-lit, Red Mill, had dissolved into one of the run of the mill “Nite Life” attractions, which accommodated lines of bussed-in tourists for a briefly timed, rather tame show, and a glass of wine. More recently, the French have had several, violent events, plus tourism has been dropping during the past decade. And so, the old, “Gaite Parisianne” is no longer to be found. Nevertheless, we still can enjoy old Paris for what it once was during Long Wharf Theatre’s spectacular production of “My Paris.” This new work focuses on the life of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose posters advertised the Paris nightlife of the 1880’s.

Kathleen Marshall, who has won numerous, prestigious awards for her choreography for stage and screen, directs an outstanding cast, some of whom appeared in the Goodspeed Musicals,’ Norma Terris production. Bobby Steggert, who was the lead in that show, is a very believable “Lautrec.” Throughout his sensitive portrayal, we feel the pain of this severely, handicapped artist, who suffered great humiliation due to his stunted growth.

Lautrec’s model and love interest, “Suzanne” is played by Mara Davi, who resembles Julie Andrews, and rivals her in both talent and beauty. Tender moments are when Davi first meets the artist and then gently leaves him in a poignant solo, “What I Meant to Say.”

But, all is not sad. Despite his handicaps, Lautrec’s three, rowdy friends, Anquetin (Andrew Mueller), Rachou (Josh Grisetti) and Grenier (John Riddle), sing and dance to “We Drink!” (Which sounds more Russian than French) as they lead him into a den of never-ending dancing, drinking and debauchery. Here, Lautrec encounters the tempting, “Green Fairy” (green absinthe), and where one expects to have foreplay with the Can-Can girls in ruffled panties. It is also where we meet the characters depicted by the artist.

Lutrec’s original posters are individually projected on background wall panels, while each of the characters that were made famous by his paintings, come alive on stage, dressed in Paul Tazewell’s authentically replicated costumes.

Feasts for the eyes are delicious dancers “Jane Avril” (Erica Sweany), outstanding in her form-fitting snake dress (she’s also the Green Fairy), “La Goulue” (Nikka Lanzorone), in her garish, red and white, polka dot blouse, “Le Chocolat” (Darious Brown) sporting his all-white outfit (a stunning contrast against his dark skin), and, the cabaret owner / performer, “Aristide Bruant” (Jamie Jackson), looking like a formidable, impresario in his wide-brimmed black hat, red scarf and cane.

Of all the performers, Brown is particularly striking when he assumes the suave, extended hip and arm pose of “Le Chocolat,” and begins to dance with style. You might recall John Travolta’s stance and dance, captured in his famous poster for “Saturday Night Fever.”

On a more serious note, when Tom Hewitt and Donna English (Lautrec’s protective “Pappa” and “Maman”) are onstage, their tender scenes turn into a tragic, grand opera. We are also moved by Maman”s “Where Are You Going?” And, as the dying Lautrec looks back on his life in “The Windmill Turns” scene, we crave for some happier relief. However, this is not a fairytale, and real life does not always end “…happily ever after.”

A multilevel set allows room for the performers, while the cabaret ‘s musicians, conducted by David Gardos, are appropriately stationed at the top. In addition to using the platforms, height was an obvious consideration in selecting Lautrec’s tall friends. These factors, along with appropriate tailoring, enhanced the illusion of the artist having short legs.

The musical’s first act is spellbinding, however, the second act drops off when Lutrec’s high life fades out, which makes one wonder if this work should be classified as a musical?

Whatever you wish to call it, with music and lyrics by internationally known, Charles Aznavour (French and Armenian recording artist), book by Alfred Uhry (Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award for “Driving Miss Daisy”), and Jason Brown (Tony Award “The Bridges of Madison County”) one way or another, this show is bound to be classified as a success.

Plays through May 29 Tickets: 203-787-4282

This review appears in “On CT & NY Theatre” May/2016

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