Jason Robert Brown

The Milieu Makes the Man

Review of My Paris, Long Wharf Theatre

Post-Impressionist artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec certainly led a colorful life. As an aristocrat slumming in Montmartre, painting and drawing the denizens of the demimonde and the performers at Mirliton, a seedy cabaret his work publicized, Toulouse-Lautrec practically defined “bohemian.” What’s more, his health was poor and a disabling congenital defect left him with a man’s body on a boy’s legs. He was under 5 foot tall and had difficulty walking. Thus, in true romantic fashion, art was a way for him to overcome adversity—including a disapproving father. The heroism of Lautrec’s lonely, passionate, and talented life, lived in the milieu of entertainers with a lust for life, makes him an interesting choice as a subject for Charles Aznavour’s vibrant My Paris, with Book by Alfred Uhry, in an English adaptation by Jason Robert Brown. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall the show, after workshop productions last year at Goodspeed, is playing at the Long Wharf Theatre through May 29.

If we can forget how transformative Baz Luhrmann’s incandescent film Moulin Rouge! was back in 2001 (more or less destroying the tired mannerisms of movie musicals), we can find fun in this more direct and studious approach to the era. But even so, My Paris takes a little while to get into the good stuff. The decision to stress Toulouse-Lautrec’s relation with his family leads to a few scenes in the early going—“Father and Mother,” “Where Are You Going?”—that begin to make us wonder if we’ll ever get to Paris.

It’s well known that Toulouse-Lautrec hung out with the some of the premier artists of his day, but there’s no sign of them here. No doubt, the emphasis on family is meant to underscore Toulouse-Lautrec’s aristocratic origins and, given that his malady was in part due to in-breeding between cousins, milk the sorrows of the family drama element of his life story. And while performers like Tom Hewitt as Papa and Donna English as Maman are certainly worth our time, scenes about the manliness of hunting or a mother’s fears for her weak boy don’t make for interesting characterizations.

The cast of My Paris (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of My Paris (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The songs set in the Moulin Rouge are the winners that make this show worth seeing, led up to by Henri and his cronies singing “We Drink!”, a kind of “Off to See the Wizard” number that draws us in with its effortless brio, followed by “Vive La Vie,” a full-tilt company number that introduces the likes of charismatic Aristide Bruant (Jamie Jackson), and local sensations such as La Goulue (Nikka Graff Lanzarone), Le Chocolat (Darius Barnes), and Jane Avril (Erica Sweany), and “Au Mirliton,” which ends Act One breathlessly, but still in “introductory” mode. Unfortunately, those named stars of Toulouse-Lautrec’s scene won’t be anything more than figures on stage matching figures in his work, as none but Bruant, a cheeky master of ceremonies with a brilliant red scarf, get to assert themselves as characters.

The cast of My Paris (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of My Paris (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

I was hoping, for awhile, that Sweany would get a number in her role as The Green Fairy—aka, absinthe, one of the stealers of Henri’s heart—but no such luck. Mara Davi as Suzanne Valadon, the other stealer of Henri’s heart, does get several expressive numbers such as the heart-stabbing “What I Meant to Say.” As Henri, Bobby Steggert carries himself with a fascinating blend of nonchalance and melancholy, or sangfroid and mauvais sang, in songs like “To Paint,” a call-to-arms; “The Honor of the Family,” a jaunty little knock-down of parental values; “Bonjour, Suzanne,” a celebration of his lady love, and, with Maman, “The Life I Lead,” a stunning bit of pop dialogue that works as the emotional center of Act Two.

Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Bobby Steggert) (photo: T. Charles Erickson

Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Bobby Steggert) (photo: T. Charles Erickson

The songs, with their easy rhymes and rhythms short-handing complex emotions, recall some of Jacques Brel’s tunes in spirit. Unlike some musicals one could name, where the setting or situations don’t immediately suggest song and dance, My Paris capitalizes on the fact that Henri haunts a world that is inherently theatrical, and Aznaour et al. find in his predicament pathos enough to sustain any amount of lyricism. While not strong on dramatic conflict—there’s no real villain other than overbearing Papa and Henri’s malady and alcoholism—the story has a satisfying arc of “misfit makes good,” and “urge to art finds success with unlikely subjects,” as well as plot points about unrequited love and the ills of dissolution.

The technical aspects of the show are all superb. The tiers of Derek McLane’s set manage to create a subtle sense of Henri’s small stature when necessary, and the distinct areas for tableaux backed with luminous projections of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work keep up a high level of visual interest throughout. The knock-out costumes are wonderful period recreations, including the Japonisme-influenced kimono the artist once posed in. The ensemble work of the dancers/singers is first-rate, having the kind of naturalness of expression that suits characters given to a showy sense of life. The variety of movements and the precision of it all is particularly impressive on Long Wharf’s relatively small amphitheater stage.

Where is it going? The Impressionists, as an artistic style and a style of being artistic, have never gone out of fashion in the public consciousness, and musicals this lively make for an agreeable evening out, giving viewers a vivid sense of art as a communal affair that suits theater more than most painter’s lives would.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Bobby Steggert), Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Bobby Steggert), Suzanne Valadon (Mara Davi) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Mais oui—
vive Henri
au Paris!


My Paris
Music & Lyrics by Charles Aznavour
Book by Alfred Uhry
English Lyric Adaptation & Musical Adaptation by Jason Robert Brown
Directed & Choreographed by Kathleen Marshall

Associate Director/Associate Choreographer by David Eggers; Music Supervisor & Orchestrator by David Chase; Musical Direction by David Gardos

Set Design: Derek McLane; Costume Design: Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design: Donald Holder; Sound Design: Brian Ronan; Projection Design: Olivia Sebesky; Hair and Wig Design: Leah Loukas; Production Stage Manager: Chris Zaccardi; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting by Telsey + Company/Craig Burns, CSA

Costume Construction: Roberta Hamelin; Jennifer Love Costumes; Long Wharf Theatre Costume Shop; Millinery: Stephanie Taff; Wig Supervisor: Samantha Abbott; Costume Crafts: Ann Marie Donnelly; Stitcher: Alexandra Nattrass

Cast: Darius Barnes; Mara Davi; Donna English; John Grisetti; Tom Hewitt; Anne Horak; Timothy Hughes; Jamie Jackson; Nikka Graff Lanzarone; Tiffany Mann; Kate Marilley; Andrew Mueller; John Riddle; Bobby Steggert; Erica Sweany

Dance Captain: Timothy Hughes

Musicians: David Gardos, conductor, piano, accordion; Sean Rubin, bass; Jeffrey Carlson, guitar, mandolin; Andrew Smith, violin

Originally produced by Goodspeed Musicals

Long Wharf Theatre
May 4-29, 2016

Here We Are in the Years

Review of The Last Five Years at Long Wharf Theatre The odd thing about Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Gordon Edelstein with musical direction by James Sampliner, is that, though it’s set in the “beginning of the 21st century” (the show originally opened in the Chicago area in 2001) its main plot tropes seem to date from earlier in the 20th century—say, the Fifties or Sixties.

We meet a couple, Cathy (Katie Rose Clarke) and Jamie (Adam Halpin). For five years they are a couple: he’s rising to success as a novelist; she’s struggling to become an actress. The songs in the show are for the most part soliloquies in which either character muses on where they are—romantically and professionally—at the moment. And, lest that should prove too “he said, she said,” Brown cleverly reverses the order of Cathy’s story, so we see her at the end of the relationship first (“Still Hurting”) and move backwards with her to the end of the couple’s first date (“Goodbye Until Tomorrow”); meanwhile, Jamie takes us in chronological order from his early infatuation with Cathy (“Shiksa Goddess”) to his last goodbye (“I Could Never Rescue You”). If you consider for a moment the titles, just named, of Jamie’s songs, you might see what I mean.

The notion of the Jewish boy enthralled by the blonde goddess who is anything but Jewish comes to us, in literary culture at least, from the likes of Philip Roth—who might in fact be a good model for this rising novelist, learning how to be a womanizer, and whose career got started in the late Fifties. The very notion of the “male hero” novelist—while still alive in our current century—should have felt somewhat dated when the show opened at the turn of the last century. Add to that the notion that, somehow, the man is supposed to “rescue” (or thinks he is) the woman and you can see a sort of “frozen in time” ethic at work here. Granted, that very retro attitude may be one of the things that sinks this relationship—see also Cathy’s “I’m a Part of That” and “When You Come Home to Me”—since it seems predicated on relationship roles elders among us might recall having been exploded in the Seventies and placed, we imagined, under irony thereafter.

My sense of the time warp might not have struck me so strongly if not for the differences in the relative strengths of the performers. Clarke’s voice (“I’m a Part of That”) and sense of comic timing (she’s great in the audition scenes of “Climbing Uphill”) make her the stronger of the two before us, and she has the moral high ground from the first song, so, though it may be a Man’s World, it’s not a man’s play. Halpin puts a lot of hurrah into his performance—he’s best at the narrative comedy of “The Schmuel Song”—but he seems unconvincing as both great success and vacillating cad. Though on the latter score, he gives a sensitive touch to “Nobody Needs to Know” (in his first extramarital fling) and can be stern, when suggesting that Cathy's doubts about their marriage come flavored with sour grapes—“I will not lose because you can’t win.”

What works best in this show is the staging. Eugene Lee’s set decoration gives a sense of the temporary nature of these “five years”: things are boxed up and either yet to be unpacked or yet to be carted off by the movers, depending who is onstage. The large spinning play area in the center of the stage, with numbers at clock positions that glow to remind us that timing is of the essence, provides some nice effects as well, particularly when the couple’s one duet, “The Next Ten Minutes,” happens in an improvised boat moving along a pond in Central Park.

The cast is to be commended for not only singing almost everything they say but also for remaining constantly onstage and for having to provide the props of scene changes. It’s a fascinating show to watch for its fluid use of space and objects—director Edelstein knows how to show-off the stage at Long Wharf—and for some nimble actions, like Halpin’s impressive leap to a table top early in the show. Likewise, the band—led by Sampliner—positioned high above the stage like celestial accompanists earn vigorous applause for the tour de force rendering of the diverse musical score that adds considerably to the evening.

As a tale of a couple—unwinding and rising simultaneously—The Last Five Years affords moments of reflection on how these things go. There’s Cathy’s charming excitement (“I Can Do Better Than That”) as she brings her man home to her parents—dissing on the locals she’s glad to get shut of; there’s Jamie’s realization that a wedding ring on a man is a temptation to a certain type of woman (“A Miracle Would Happen”), all of which makes our heroes rather shallow. There’s an emptiness in the life they seem to imagine they want and in the life they seem to get, and there’s not enough satire to make us laugh at them nor enough real feeling to make us identify with them.  Those who like a good cry at the end of a love affair, may find that, with these two, it all seems no great loss. They’ll be fine.

Likeable enough, I suppose, The Last Five Years only lasts 80 minutes.


The Last Five Years Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown Directed by Gordon Edelstein Musical Direction by James Sampliner

Set Design: Eugene Lee; Costume Design: Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design: Ben Stanton; Sound Design: Leon Rothenberg; Production Stage Manager: Jason A. Quinn; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting: Calleri Casting

The Long Wharf Theatre May 7-June 1, 2014

A Challenging Musical Comes to Long Wharf

For James Sampliner, musical director for Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, which opens previews May 7 at the Long Wharf, directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, taking on the assignment is “a major milestone.” Sampliner, who will be performing the show eight times a week, conducting from his piano’s keyboard, sees the complicated and varied score as both an immense pleasure and a challenge.

In Sampliner’s view, the show is a test of a musician’s stamina as, among devotees of musical theater, The Last Five Years is known for its demanding piano score. What’s more, the show is a “two-hander,” meaning that there are only two characters on stage throughout, and the entirety of the show consists of the songs each character sings about their relationship. For Cathy (Katie Rose Clarke), the story of her relationship with Jamie (Adam Halpin) is told from their break-up backwards to her first date with him, while for Jamie the sequence follows a chronology of first to last.

The challenges of the show, for a musical director, entail not only the physical task of playing the show each night—which Sampliner views as a good cardiovascular workout—but also reacting sensitively, even intuitively, to the singers/actors as they tell their parallel stories in song. Sampliner has never worked at the Long Wharf before but has worked with Brown on the latter’s Honeymoon in Vegas adaptation, and feels that his grasp of Brown’s music is important to the show’s delicate dynamic.

“Jason’s music is very carefully written,” Sampliner stresses, so that the musical director’s task is not so much interpreting the music as communicating to the other musicians the different emphases of the actors in performance. One begins to see at once what he means by “complicated.”

Drawing on blues, jazz, rock’n’roll, and classical techniques—all the musical forms he and Brown share a love for—the show, Sampliner says, is “one I needed to do.” Rehearsing with Edelstein, Clarke and Halpin, they have been asking lots of questions of the material, finding their unique way of bringing the show to life. “It’s not so much a question of new layers that other productions haven’t discovered, but asking ‘what do you think this is about,’” finding their own answers to the questions that arise.

The play’s structure is “a brilliant idea,” Sampliner finds, with Cathy moving from her lowest point to her highest and Jamie following the opposite trajectory. “They sing together at the middle point between the two extremes,” and each song offers its individual challenges, so that, for Sampliner, it’s not a question of finding the show’s highpoints, as each song has its highpoints and its rewards. “In so many ways,” Sampliner says, “The Last Five Years is Brown’s magnum opus,” the kind of musical that has musical directors “champing at the bit” for a chance to perform it.

When it comes to conducting, Sampliner finds that being able to conduct his ensemble of six players from the keyboard is the kind of skill necessary at a time when theater demands versatility and smaller orchestras. “It’s not uncommon,” he says and rising to the challenge of playing as well as conducting has him very excited by the opportunity to be, as he says, “the bus driver.”

“At the meet-and-greet when rehearsals began, everyone asks one another what they do, and I like to say ‘I’m the bus driver.’” Making sure the show gets where it needs to go and that all parts of this tuneful, challenging, funny, and moving show get there in concert is not unlike the task of steering an unwieldy vehicle to its proper destination, come what may.

Meanwhile, fans of musical theater and of Jason Robert Brown—currently enjoying a hit on Broadway with The Bridges of Madison County, and likened to Stephen Sondheim in his crowd-pleasing grasp of musical theater—should be lining up to take the ride.


The Last Five Years Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown Directed by Gordon Edelstein

The Long Wharf Theatre

May 7-June 1, 2014

Tuesdays and Wednesdays: 7 pm Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays: 8 pm Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays: 2 pm

Long Wharf's New Season Launched

Of course, the big news today is that we have a functioning federal government again . . . sorta, and government workers are returning to work. Whether your inclination is to cheer, jeer, or sneer at our political leadership, here’s news of another happy return taking place today: the Long Wharf Theatre is back. The first show of the new season, Steve Martin’s The Underpants, begins previews tonight, and opens next Wednesday. Derived from a German play of the Expressionist era by Carl Sternheim, Martin’s play is a irreverent farce about marriage, fidelity, temptation . . . and undergarments. When a young woman’s knickers drop to her ankles while she’s out in public—to watch the King on parade—she becomes a major provocation to young men on the prowl. Would-be suitors move into a room for rent in the house where Louise lives with her stuffy husband who is squeamish about sex—because children cost money!—and not at all ready to find himself married to “a sensation.” Directed by Gordon Edelstein, the play’s skewering of dull conformity in the name of racier considerations should make for a lively evening, and Martin’s sense of comic timing is legendary. October 16-November 10.


Next up is a Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson: Fences, a play that won a Tony for its two lead roles both in its original production in 1987 and in its first Broadway revival in 2010, as well as Tony for Best Play (1987) and Best Revival (2010). Set in the 1950s, the story concerns Troy Maxson, a man who drives a garbage truck but who at one time was a baseball sensation in the Negro Leagues. Set in the time when the color barrier was being broached by black athletes, the play is a character study of a working-class black man struggling with his place in life—which includes a brother with a war injury, two sons, one from a previous marriage, the other from his current marriage to Rose, and a pregnant girlfriend. The Long Wharf’s revival will be directed by Phylicia Rashād, famous since the 1980s for her role as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, and a Tony-Award-winning Actress in the revival of A Raisin in the Sun in 2004. November 27-December 22

The first play of the new year is the World Premiere of Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant, a workplace comedy set at the firm of Sutton, Feingold and McGrath, a pharmaceutical advertising company, where downsizing and getting ahead fuel anxieties, and office romance plays its part in the complex sense of “work” in our era of constant Bluetooth and Smartphone access. Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein calls the play “irreverent, a little kooky and very humane.” January 8-February 9, 2014

Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting helms celebrated newer playwright Amy Herzog’s touching family drama 4000 Miles, about the rapport between a twenty-one-year-old and his ninety-one-year-old grandmother, living together in Greenwich Village after Leo bikes across the continent from California. It’s an opportunity for the clash and the coming-to-terms of generations in this highly praised play called both “funny” and “moving” by The New York TimesFebruary 19-March 16

Tony Award-winning South African playwright Athol Fugard has not acted on stage since 1997. It’s exciting news to hear that he will be acting the main role in his new play The Shadow of the Hummingbird in its World Premiere, directed by Gordon Edelstein. Fugard plays a grandfather who unexpectedly plays host to his ten-year-old grandson, truant from school for the day. Following 4000 Miles at Long Wharf, we can say that the interplay between elders and juniors is a big theme in the second half of the 2013-14 Season. In Edelstein’s words, Fugard’s latest is “a great work by a master about living and dying, and how to live one’s life.” Stage II, March 26-April 27.

The final show of the season is the crowd-pleasing musical The Last Five Years, Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, directed by Gordon Edelstein. Playing on Broadway just now is Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, about a marriage and an infidelity, told backwards from the end of the affair to the night it began. Brown’s musical does something similar: Cathy, an actress, tells the story of her marriage to Jamie, a writer, from its end to its beginning; Jaimie tells of his relationship to Cathy from its romantic inception to its collapse. In the center of the play there is a shared song on the night they agree to marry. Using a clever device to explore the “his” and “hers” of stories about relationships, the play is poignant and engaging, with songs of wit and romance. May 7-June 1.

It would seem the Long Wharf has put together another winning season of new work, important revivals, and welcome encores of recent crowd-pleasing theater.  Over 30 Long Wharf productions have transferred to Broadway or Off-Broadway, most recently the highly acclaimed My Name is Asher Lev and the fascinating musical February House.


Plays are staged at the Claire Tow Stage in the C. Newton Schenck III Theatre, unless otherwise stated.

The Long Wharf Theatre Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director; Joshua Bernstein, Managing Director

222 Sargent Drive New Haven, CT

203.787.4282 www.longwharf.org