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Ed Dixon in Under the Bridge
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Perhaps it's my lamentable middle-class values that keep me from recommending Under the Bridge, the new Kathie Lee Gifford-David Pomeranz family musical, to kids from three to 93. Maybe others will see past its unconventional attitudes to certain charms, but I can't.

Given my woeful bourgeois sensibility, I find the plot of the show a smidgen questionable: Madame Calcet (Jacquelyn Piro), a Paris laundress with three children (Maggie Watts, Andrew Blake Zutty, Alexa Ehrlich), has been evicted from her home and sets up temporary housekeeping under a Belleville bridge, a locale that's also occupied by proprietary bum Armand (Ed Dixon). When she rises in the morning for work, failing to feed her offspring, she tells them to stay put. They mustn't go to school, she insists, because teachers could ask too many problem-inducing questions. Instead, she leaves the children with the clochard, even though she makes it clear that she despises him.

The bum, who loathes children, nonetheless begins to watch over them. Before you can say "Any spare francs?" he introduces them to a fortune-telling gypsy, Mireli (Florence Lacey), and her merry clan, whom he freely acknowledges are thieves but defends as "excellent thieves." Then everybody sings about the glorious gypsy life. As the song goes, "We're good at sharing the things we take / We take what we need and make no mistake / We make no apology." The roofless siblings lap up this lesson, although it's not one that's taught on Sesame Street. Meanwhile, a couple of upper-class women who decide to do something about what appears to be the children's unfortunate condition are smugly tagged "Do-gooders" (Thursday Farrar, Tamra Hayden) and depicted as villainesses no less vicious than a fellow named Jacques (Dan Cooney), who threatens to kidnap and sell the kids.

Heaven knows what librettist-lyricist Gifford would have made of busybodies who witnessed Joel Steinberg abusing his daughter and turned him in to authorities. In adapting Natalie Savage Carlson's book The Family Under the Bridge (which I haven't read and am now not eager to crack open), Gifford obviously thinks she's writing a tuner about family values by melding The Madwoman of Chaillot, which Jerry Herman turned into the inadequate Dear World, with the Walter Marks flop Bajour. At the final fade-out, Armand has fallen totally for little Suzy, Paul, and Evelyne; he has even come to like Madame Calcet, and she, him. He casts off his vagabond ways and -- well, we mustn't give away the gaudy tale's middle-class ending.

Gifford has fooled herself into thinking that she's examining the definition of family. She's not alone at the enterprise these days, but in her eagerness to remain on the "family-first" bandwagon that she boarded in her Regis and Kathie Lee days, she has fallen short of her goal. The issue of family is, of course, pressing and significant; if love and care are defining elements, then when a group of people exhibiting these traits bands together, they should have the right to call themselves a family. But trying to pass off a narrative as shoddy and stacked as Under the Bridge is no way to advance the cause. At a time when the real problem is citizens and authorities turning a blind eye to the maltreatment of children, what's achieved by ridiculing people who make the effort to do something about it? Is it genuinely funny or helpful to dress three children up as gypsies and school them at marauding so that the authorities will ignore them? (When a friend of mine was surrounded and robbed by a group of gypsies in an Italian cathedral, she wasn't charmed by the experience.)

Florence Lacey and Jacquelyn Piro in
Under the Bridge
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
If attending adults and children can get past the atrocious implications of the script, they will enjoy a number of David Pomeranz's melodies. The composer's tunes for the opening number, "Paris," and especially for a ballad titled "This House Where We Live," progress gracefully. Pomeranz does less well with a couple of angry songs, "It Was My Bridge!" and "What Kind of Mother Am I?", that are as prosaic as their titles imply. Gifford's lyrics are workable and at times even clever, although "Christmas is Everyone's Holiday" is cloying as a fruitcake.

Under Eric Schaeffer's so-so direction (does he really believe in this tale?), Ed Dixon puts on sometimes appealing Maurice Chevalier-like airs as Armand, Jacquelyn Piro thaws out nicely as mama Calcet, and Florence Lacey is vigorous as the caring gypsy. Playing the waifs, Maggie Watts, Andrew Blake Zutty, and Alexa Ehrlich do a good deal of disingenuous smiling, though they are line- and pitch-perfect throughout. (In their program bios, each of them is described as "thrilled" to be in this show; it's a shame that the cumulative effect of Under the Bridge is less than thrilling.) Similarly sufficient are the contributions of set designer Jim Kronzer (the set is composed of slatted gray shutters), costume designer Anne Kennedy, lighting designer Chris Lee, and sound designer Kai Harada.

When Kathie Lee GIfford was a morning TV fixture, she gabbed plenty about her children, Cody and Cassidy, but I'll wager that she never advocated a gypsy education for them. So why is she trying to hawk it for other children now?

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