Inspired by Americans-in-Paris films of the 1950s and ’60s, Trinity Rep a.d. Curt Columbus adds a twist to the genre in “Paris By Night” by writing the central heartthrobs in this new tuner as a pair of guys. An interracial romance about a repressed soldier/boxer from West Virginia and a black ex-pat tattoo artist, both lonely and aching for love, Columbus’ vision is the Americanized movie version of the City of Lights, full of every Hollywood cliche about gay Paris — aside from the gay part.
But the leading characters in this world premiere fail to resonate as compelling people, lacking credibility as well as chemistry. There doesn’t seem to be much going on with these two, either in the tepid script, in helmer Birgitta Victorson’s draggy direction or with thesps James Royce Edwards and Joe Wilson Jr., who ignite few sparks.
There are identity issues as well. Though the show is conceived as a cabaret-sized piece, it often wants to break free big time. The material also seems unsure if it wants to poke fun at or embrace the stereotypes, if it wants to explore the dark depths of the heart, or if it prefers to keep things light and gay. It would take a savvier script and production to make these disparate elements work.
Buck (Edwards) is a hick from the sticks with limited appeal other than his beefcake bod. Sam (Wilson) is sophisticated and cool but most of the time he seems to be in a state of discomfort, either mooning over a lost love or grappling with his feelings toward his new pal, who has come in for a tat and a tour.
As Buck’s fellow soldiers-on-leave, there’s Patrick (Stephen Thorne) a comic bumbler of the Donald O’Connor variety, and Frank (Mauro Hantman), a bully, bore and bigot. Inexplicably, Parisian chanteuse Marie (Rachel Warren) is gaga over Frank, despite his ugly American demeanor, failing to see that Patrick would be a better match.
For local color, there’s Sam’s flamboyant, older gay friend Harry (Stephen Berenson), who is not as witty as he thinks; and cafe owner Henriette (Janice Duclos), whose purpose is to be sardonic and wise. She also gets two of the show’s best tunes, the fizzy “The Art of Le Cafe” and “The Mystery of the Human Heart,” a Jacques Brel-tinged tune of regret, startling in its conversational intimacy.
When caught in a kiss, Buck breaks off the budding relationship, leaving Sam to be even more angst-ridden than before, which is plenty. Second act involves the return of the soldiers to Paris a year later (Buck has a big boxing fight scheduled) with all the lovers suitably paired at show’s end.
The jazz-flavored music by Andre Pluess and Amy Warren, played well by a trio tucked in a corner of the stage, has a low-key, seductive appeal. The first few songs suggest something cool, playful and promising: “City of Night” is evocative, “Hey One” is a sweet song that swings, and “American Man” is a comic turn, ably played by the funny and charming Thorne, who improves every scene he’s in.
But the score is hobbled with one scene or mood-setter too many and several pivotal songs fail to land or are pushed too hard. Tunes are further encumbered by Columbus’ lyrics, which lose themselves between poetry and the rhyming dictionary. Though the players (most from the Rep’s resident company) are game, there’s not a killer voice in the show.
Eugene Lee must have missed the memo that this was to be a simply produced show; his sprawling, detailed set widens the scope of the musical without solving the multiple locations required. Unintentionally, Lee’s design reflects the hybrid, conflicted feel of an unsatisfying piece.