Review: 'My Paris' at the Long Wharf Theater

Tara Kennedy

  • OnStage Connecticut Critic

NEW HAVEN CT - I was so excited to see My Paris come up as the final work for LWT’s season. I missed it when it as playing at the Goodspeed Opera House, so I jumped at the chance to see it here. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to me was an emblematic yet enigmatic figure: deformed as a teen due to a bone disease that left his legs small, he was an outcast in his French aristocratic family. He came to Paris and found his niche in Montmartre, a bohemian section of northern Paris where artists, performers, prostitutes, and ne’er-do-wells hung out to commiserate, comingle, and collaborate. 

Lautrec’s bright, colorful posters were considered gauche and low-brow while he was producing art, but he was actively sought out to produce posters for cabaret and dance halls to bring in the clientele. Le Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir only became more popular with his advertisements on the streets of Paris. 

I think my expectations were pretty high for this production. Originally a musical titled Lautrec, it is written by French singer and composer. Charles Aznavour, and was produced in London’s West End in 2000 with a different book author and translator (Shaun McKenna and Dee Shipman, respectively). The two-and-half-hour marathon of a show was deemed a flop: “If the show staggers on for than a few months I’ll mange mon chapeau,” quipped the Daily Telegraph. I wondered why they didn’t name the show Lautrec and now I know.

Time for a major rework and some assistance from some major heavy hitters in musical theatre! The new-and-improved book is by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Alfred Uhry, who also wrote Driving Miss Daisy, Parade, and the Robber Bridegroom (the Roundabout in NYC is currently showing a fantastic production of this show right now). Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, 13, Parade) wrote the English language adaptation and also the musical adaptation. The show is cut down to ninety minutes without intermission, yet still manages to tell the artist’s story in a respectable and entertaining fashion. 

  In the foreground, from left: Josh Grisetti (Rachou), Bobby Steggert (Toulouse-Lautrec), John Riddle (Grenier), and Andrew Mueller (Anquentin). Photo: T. Charles Erickson

 In the foreground, from left: Josh Grisetti (Rachou), Bobby Steggert (Toulouse-Lautrec), John Riddle (Grenier), and Andrew Mueller (Anquentin). Photo: T. Charles Erickson

My Paris begins with the background of young Henri. I was disheartened in how the musical began: too much exposition. Of course, there needs to be establishment of some facts: the hopelessness of his medical condition; the strained relationship between father (wonderfully cruelly played by Tom Hewitt) and son; the overbearing, hovering mother (caringly portrayed by Donna English), but I wonder if it needed to be as drawn out as it was. Or maybe it just felt drawn out. Ultimately, my husband snoozed through those first twenty minutes and I’m not sure he missed anything. 

But then, a light at the end of the exposition tunnel: Lautrec takes a drawing class and we meet his three classmates, Rachou (Josh Grisetti), Anquetin (Andrew Mueller), and Grenier (John Riddle), who ultimately save us from being narrated to death. “We Drink!” brought the merriment and joie de vivre that I was expecting from this show. I have a special place in my heart for Mr. Riddle because of his wonderful performance in Kander and Ebb’s final musical, The Visit, as young Anton. His singing voice will melt you into your shoes. And he had the best line in the whole show: “We drink because we aren’t fucking nuns!” (You can take that whichever way you like.) I also thoroughly enjoyed Jamie Jackson as Aristide Bruant, the proprietor of the seedy café, Mirliton. His growling voice and boisterous, bawdy presence made him live up to his character’s name.    

Bobby Steggert did a marvelous job playing the tortured artist. He plays Lautrec with a physicality and the sensitivity necessary to avoid portraying the artist as a caricature.  His Lautrec has many dimensions, which allows the audience to care about the artist; we see a young man devolving from a known, successful, and cultured artist into a morass of alcohol and sex, and Steggert portrayed this downfall with absolute truth. His singing voice was lovely and reminiscent of a young Mandy Patinkin.  

I enjoyed the spirited, charismatic Suzanne Valadon played by Mara Davi. She portrays Lautrec’s muse with absolute precision. Her performance – to be honest? Flawless in every aspect. Her shining moment for me was “You Do It for You” as she convinces Lautrec to keep making art despite his family’s objections.

But it is the ensemble who really brings this show to life. Easily my favorite number is “Au Mirliton.” Before our eyes, all of Lautrec’s most famous works come to life. I was bouncing with glee in my seat watching these familiar, two-dimensional figures dancing and flitting about the stage. Each performer took their turn in a gilded frame on wheels and spun about as their poster was projected in portions onto the wall behind them.  

The period costumes, designed by Paul Tazewell, were absolutely beautiful. I was especially impressed with the accuracy of the costumes worn by the performers in the “Au Mirliton.” Jane Avril, May Milton, La Goulue, Yvette Guilbert – all of them looked exactly like their poster images, even down to Jane Avril’s bodice snake that wrapped around her skirts. We saw more beautifully lavish outfits during “The Honor of the Family” where Lautrec’s father brings out the whole family line to show his son why he shouldn’t continue his life in Montmartre as a bohemian artist.     

The vivacious dancing also made this show a blast. “Vive La Vie” introduced some fantastic choreography (by Kathleen Marshall, who also directed the show), including the iconic Can-Can, that provided the momentum and energy that one would imagine in a Montmartre café.  Set and projection design by Derek McLane and Olivia Sebesky, respectively, should be given high praise for creating a simple but beautiful ode to La Belle Epoque where the blue wallpaper magically transforms into the projection medium for the artworks being created or referenced in the show. 

My only real criticism was the Green Fairy: not the performer, but the character. Generally, I do not like my symbolism well beaten over my head and I felt like the drifting nymph (held up by the men in the cast to simulate her floating through the air) was just over the top as a representation of absinthe, an alcoholic beverage that Lautrec seemed to favor (especially mixed with cognac). However, her presence as a seductive lady of the evening during the number, “L’Amour Fait Mal” (loosely translated as “Love Causes Hurt”) is wholly appropriate as a representation of the seduction of liquor and the loose women who would eventually be his downfall (Lautrec dies from complications of syphilis and alcoholism at the age of 36). In the case of la fée verte, less is more.

To me, Lautrec’s iconic posters and paintings emanate such spirit and life that one would expect nothing less than the same exuberance from a musical about his life and work.  I was so pleased when the show finally reached that point and stayed there. Overall, this high-spirited production is worth the trip to Long Wharf to watch this fantastic ensemble cast kick up its heels in celebration of the life and spirit of Lautrec and his Paris!