As Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mark Povinelli is excellent. He's imperious and commanding at one moment, extremely vulnerable the next; Henri is very much the at the center of a vibrant world in which he participates, yet he always seems something of an outsider. The historical figure stood at a height of four feet, eleven inches, and Povinelli seems even shorter than that. The size differential between the actor and the rest of the cast seems especially pronounced during the dance segments, when he literally runs after the long limbed figures around him.
Vivienne Benesch, as his love interest Suzanne, is a spirited and engaging performer. However, she often telegraphs her motivations in too broad a fashion -- which is somewhat understandable, considering that she's given little text to flesh out her characterization. Joyce Castle is a bit disappointing as Yvette, a chanteuse undoubtedly meant to represent the famous cabaret performer Yvette Guilbert; Castle, whose credits encompass more opera than theater, does not have the kind of commanding stage presence that would make her performance come alive. Too often, she's upstaged by the dancers around her. Since the songs that Yvette sings -- accompanied by a quartet of onstage musicians -- are a major component of Belle Epoque, this is a major drawback.
In her choreography, Clarke makes much use of the can-can, with plenty of high kicks as well as sweeping skirts and flashing petticoats. There's also a bit of belly dancing and a marvelously performed tap duet. Many of the director/choreographer's stage images seem directly inspired by Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings, and the show's visual vocabulary is enriched as a result. The company of actor-dancers is terrific, especially Rob Besserer, whose long legs and quirky way of moving his body seem appropriate for the nickname that his character Valentin is given in the program: "The Boneless." Also a treat is Tomé Cousin as a Cuban named Chocolat, who was the inspiration for Toulouse-Lautrec's 1896 painting "Chocolat Dancing."
Robert Israel's set keeps the main playing area of the Mitzi Newhouse's thrust stage clear in order to accommodate the dancers. A few café tables and chairs are set off to the side, and large mirrors, frosted over to prevent too much reflection, dominate the back wall. Jane Greenwood's sumptuous costumes capture the excitement of the era beautifully, while Christopher Akerlind's lighting is appropriately moody and atmospheric.
The show has a running time of an hour and 15 minutes, yet it feels longer. Clarke is unable to sustain the energy of the piece; several segments are drawn out and uninteresting. For example, an extended sequence in which Moulin Rouge entertainer La Goulue (Ruth Maleczech) delivers a rather crass poem doesn't work. Neither do several of the conversations between Henri and his friend Francois (Michael Stuhlberg), which seem to drag on infinitely. Still, there's a squalid beauty to Belle Epoque that's enchanting even if the piece doesn't add up to much.