A title as broad as My Paris isn't befitting of a musical about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, one of the most distinctive post-Impressionist painters to come out of the Belle Epoque. But the name isn't the only disappointingly generic aspect of this new collaboration between iconic French songwriter Charles Aznavour and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry. While there are a few rare glimmers of specificity sprinkled throughout this Long Wharf Theatre production directed by Kathleen Marshall, we never really get a sense that the master artist's life was as colorful and textured as his images.
Lautrec did have the kind of experiences that tend to be a perfect fit for musical theater. The son of aristocrats (who were also first cousins), he suffered health defects, and after fracturing his femurs, his legs ceased to grow. He topped out at four-foot-eight, with an adult's torso and the legs of a child. When we meet Lautrec (Bobby Steggert), he's looking back on the time he spent in the bohemian Parisian district of Montmartre during his 20s. It was there that he began creating posters for the Moulin Rouge and other nightclubs, and where he simultaneously found inspiration in a bottle of absinthe.
In Uhry's hands, Lautrec's story comes alive, but rarely does it live. The details of Lautrec's life play out one by one, in such a way that ends up resembling a college art history presentation more than a breathing piece of dramatic theater. Uhry adds certain embellishments, like a love story for Lautrec and his model, Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi), that fall flat, not because of the performers, but because certain textual choices are largely unclear. (It's hinted that she may be a prostitute, but her actual back story is never addressed.)
Fortunately, the veteran Broadway performers in the company add a generous helping of blood to the proceedings. Steggert is a beautifully sympathetic figure as Lautrec, an outsider whose self-deprecating vision of himself always leaves him on the periphery, even as the world lauds him. Davi is his equal as the sexy, secretive Suzanne, and together, their will-they, won't-they chemistry sizzles. Tom Hewitt is perfectly dictatorial as Lautrec's father, while Donna English finds a great deal of pathos as his mother. A trio of friends for Lautrec, played by Josh Grisetti, John Riddle, and Andrew Mueller, lighten the mood, but are largely interchangeable.
In terms of accuracy, Azanvour's score hits the nail squarely on the head. The haunting melodies, orchestrated for a four-member chamber band by David Chase, are so authentic that we almost forget that we aren't listening to them on the streets of the City of Light. However, the English lyrics, translated by Jason Robert Brown, rely too much on rhyming couplets and occasionally take us out of the piece.
In a similar vein, there are a handful of muddled metaphors in Marshall's staging, which overall lacks the grit of 1890s Montmartre, as seen in Lautrec's paintings themselves. Marshall turns the effects of Lautrec's alcohol of choice, absinthe, into a physical Green Fairy (played by Erica Sweany), who hovers over the stage enticing Lautrec with her neon-colored nectar. It happens so often that it ends up becoming more about performing an aerial ballet than the physical manifestation of temptation. In a more head-scratching choice, a wheelchair-bound Bunraku puppet makes several appearances as Lautrec's younger self, which provokes unintended chuckles from the audience.
One of the major highlights of the production is the design. Derek McLane's spare, singular set beautifully evokes the worn-down garrets of La Bohème, while Donald Holder's lighting and Olivia Sebesky's projections brilliantly take us on a tour of Lautrec's work and France itself, with stops at the twirling windmill of the Moulin Rouge and the Arc de Triomphe.
These elements, along with Marshall's impressively acrobatic choreography and Paul Tazewell's glamorous costumes, are expertly synthesized at the end of the first act, where the unique figures of Lautrec's paintings, from the cancan dancer La Goulue (Nikka Graff Lanzarone) to the red-scarfed Aristide Bruant (Jamie Jackson), step out of their drawings and take the stage alongside their creator. More breathtaking sequences like that are what My Paris needs.