Haven’t the homeless been bruised enough by New York theater this season? Apparently not. After the screechy cliche overload of “Brooklyn, the Musical” comes the dismal banality of “Under the Bridge,” the underwhelming tale of a crusty Parisian clochard who discovers the redeeming power of love and family through a trio of red-headed urchins. Based on Natalie Savage Carlson’s Newbery Honor-winning children’s novel, this musically monotonous tuner lacks either narrative momentum or emotional engagement and probably would not have found its way onto an Off Broadway stage without the clout of former TV personality Kathie Lee Gifford.
Carlson’s books are admired for their evocative sense of place and the folkloric charm of the Virginian author’s francophile stories. Distilling the writer’s 1958 novel “The Family Under the Bridge” down to its heart-tugging Hallmark essence without building character, incident or any kind of convincing environment, Gifford, who penned the musical’s book and lyrics, has crafted a tale so flavorless and generic it might as well take place in Paris, Idaho. Having characters occasionally exclaim, “Mon dieu!” or “Zut alors!” just isn’t enough.
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Ponderous as it is, the show is rescued from total inertia by Ed Dixon, bringing a larger-than-life Tevye-esque quality to Armand, the Paris hobo who fiercely guards his peaceful solitude, aversion to work and regular shelter under one of the city’s bridges.
His domain is disturbed by the arrival of three perky siblings (Maggie Watts, Andrew Blake Zutty, Alexa Ehrlich) whose widowed mother, Madame Calcet (Jacquelyn Piro), has been forced to take work in a laundry after they’re evicted from their home.
Given that this is intended as a family show, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the predictability of the tale as Armand softens from his initial disdain for “starlings,” protecting the tykes from the threat of well-heeled do-gooders and ruthless criminals, and radically altering his ways in order to provide them with a home. But the emotional transition is so automatic that it’s meaningless.
Echoing the lack of character development throughout this blandly benevolent undertaking, Armand’s gruffness and indifference toward children are too thinly sketched to make his eventual embrace of them much of a turnaround. One minute, he’s declaring, “I’m a mean, cranky old tramp and I hate children,” and the next minute, he’s dragging them around Paris on a series of picaresque adventures that never quite come to life.
Likewise, Madame Calcet’s distrust of the old man adopted by her children and of the Gypsy community that offers them shelter melts almost instantaneously, dulling any sense of conflict or resolution.
Helping to humanize the kids’ mother is jolly Gypsy Mireli (Florence Lacey), who opens Madame Calcet’s heart to rejoice in the love she lived rather than mourn the one she lost. Explored in the song “What Might Have Been,” the tender feelings between Mireli and Armand provide a gentle romantic strain, but neither the writing nor Lacey’s perf help breathe veracity into the Gypsy woman, who’s like a Missoni-clad ethno-chic dowager channeling Lynn Redgrave. Her tiresome dialogue doesn’t help: “We Gypsies do not believe in death,” “We Gypsies do not believe in goodbyes,” “We Gypsies are like fine wine,” etc.
What energy the show musters under Eric Schaeffer’s plodding direction lies mainly with Dixon; the remaining cast members are rarely more than serviceable.
Composer David Pomeranz’s thinly orchestrated tunes have a numbingly pleasant sameness about them. Even the more rousing numbers in the overstuffed roster of songs, such as “This Is the Gypsy Life” or the token seasonal anthem “Christmas Is Everyone’s Holiday,” seem mummified in their bid for exuberance and their half-hearted stabs at choreography. When more than a handful of people are onstage, the results generally become chaotic and amateurish.
While they pile on the platitudes (“Half a dream is better than having no dream at all”) and are not exactly elegant (“First you crawl, You soil your pants/Then you fall and blame it all on circumstance”), Gifford’s lyrics at least avoid the lachrymose syrup the material would seem to invite. But this first of two collaborations with Pomeranz — the second, “Hurricane Aimee,” about evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, is slated for production this summer — is sadly lacking in genuine warmth or infectious sentimental uplift.
Consisting mainly of a collage of wooden louver shutters that adequately hint at the bridge of the title, Jim Kronzer’s set looks right at home among the mismatched car-seating and ramshackle layout of the Zipper.