The brush strokes are broad in “My Paris,” the predictable bio-tuner of Belle Epoque artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, now premiering at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn. The chansons francaises by legendary singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour — with nuanced English lyrics and a savvy musical adaptation by Jason Robert Brown — gives the musical a real taste of Gaul-on-the-Rialto, but this paint-by-numbers show need more than musical elan. Though it’s sumptuously produced and cleverly staged, the musical itself isn’t as flavorful as Aznavour’s music, or as the artist’s own renderings of the colorful bohemian nightlife and its inhabitants of rogues, dreamers and outsiders.
Several songs are drawn from the short-lived 2000 London musical “Lautrec,” with a score by Aznavour, but there are also plenty of new ones from the almost 92-year-old singer-songwriter. The music, performed by a four-piece, on-stage ensemble, is the most appealing aspect of this chamber production, with haunting refrains, introspective lyrics and bittersweet undercurrents of hope, regret and longing.
After a predictable place-setter opener (“Paris!”), Alfred Uhry’s script traces this well-worn biographical roadmap in flashback, following the stunted young aristocrat Henri (Bobby Steggert) as he breaks free of his dominating dad (Tom Hewitt) and possessive-but-supportive Maman (Donna English) and finds his place as a young artist in Paris.
He soon finds a trio of interchangeable art-school buds (John Riddle, Josh Grisetti, Andrew Mueller) who introduce him to the seedy side of town. There he finds “a world as ridiculous as I am” and falls in love with Montmartre’s intoxicating brew of vibrancy, sex, and especially the lure of absinthe, which is nicely embodied by a secuctive Green Fairy (Erica Sweany).
Henri also falls for Suzanne (Mara Davi), a model with a not-so-mysterious background and a startlingly au-courant attitude. The first act eventually perks up with a rousing “We Drink!” but it’s not until later, when Lautrec’s artwork comes alive, that the overall production livens up as well. Mostly these are characters — vividly dressed to match the iconic illustrations by Paul Tazewell — without character. A tableau vivant, no matter how vivant, can only do so much.
The much stronger second act is emotionally richer in both style and conflict. There’s a uplifting fantasy number where Henri imagines himself healthy and tall (“Bonjour, Suzanne”), a Broadway-style number (“The Honor of the Family”) and some lovely moments between the artist and Suzanne, and between Henri and his mother. “You Do It For You” and “What I Meant to Say” are especially gorgeous, and sung sublimely by Davi, although her muse of a character could use some sharpening.
Production values reflect the commercial backing behind this regional premiere. Derek McLane’s multi-tiered set gives plenty of opportunity for director Kathleen Marshall to give the illusion of the artist’s diminutive stature. McLane’s framing devices are clever, and with Donald Holder’s lighting, they transform the settings from an aristocratic estate to the down-and-dirty corners of Montmartre — with a clever side stop to the Arc de Triomphe.
As Henri, Steggert is appealing, sympathetic and sings splendidly, with a soupçon of that Aznavour mix of tension and tenderness as he balances his character’s man-child nature with his artistic brilliance. But art isn’t easy, and putting it together, whether it’s on canvas or on stage, calls for more than music.