Learning curves

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  May 8, 2008

The production is also well cast, from Trinity Rep vet Bob Colonna’s rumpled, Shavian Hector to BU School of Theatre grad Karl Baker Olson’s prim, pursed, wounded Posner. Trinity’s excellent Timothy Crowe is a clipped commandant of a Headmaster, more interested in “results” than education, and Paula Plum, perpetually looking down over her glasses as if to assess the glitter of gold sweater guard and spectacles chain, is a wonderfully wry Dorothy Lintott. Chris Thorn makes a credible case for Irwin, whose exam strategies are probably right if regrettable, capturing the yearning ordinariness behind the flimsily cobbled hot shot. And the boys are a bright, sprawling lot whose standouts include Dan Whelton’s easygoing golden boy, Dakin, and Jared Craig’s Scripps, who has dedicated his testosterone to God. They all get into Oxford or Cambridge, but the play does not stop there — thereby perhaps proving the insubstantiality of such self-serving, short-term goals.

The theme of Americans in Paris singing up a storm — it worked for Gene Kelly, why not for Curt Columbus? Spurred by American films of the 1950s and ’60s set in some fictional gloss on the City of Light (and by a scheme hatched a decade ago to write a “hit gay musical”), the artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company spearheaded Paris by Night, which is now getting its world premiere from the Providence troupe (through June 1). He also wrote the book and lyrics, which were afterward set to jazzy melodies — some bouncy, some torching — by Chicago-based composers Andre Pluess and Amy Warren. Enthusiastically rendered at Trinity, the show feels like a labor of love, bursting with energy and a piquant period naïveté but certainly lacking the shelf life of An American in Paris.

Then again, Columbus had something closer to Leslie Howard than Leslie Caron in mind when he concocted a dream mate for his expatriate American, philosophical tattoo artist Sam, who believes that love is a one-chance thing and he’s blown his. Having fled San Francisco for Montmartre and the company of rich old chum Harry, a boy-chasing bon vivant always in evening clothes, Sam lives a stoic life, writing never-mailed letters to the ex he drove away. Then a young American soldier named Buck (!) comes into his shop and gets “under his skin” (apt imagery for a tattoo artist). But Buck at first eschews his mysterious attraction to Sam for the bluff companionship of fellow servicemen-on-leave Frank and Patrick, two points of a triangular subplot involving a French nightclub singer with a yen for the rotten apple, not the peach.

Columbus and company take up the conventions and lingo of the movie musicals that were their inspiration and mostly make them work. It’s Paris, but the natives all speak English with a French accent, and the Americans say things like “swell” and “hit the hay.” Rachael Warren, as the chanteuse never without a patent-leather belt and red fishnets, has a big Shirley MacLaine number. And though Sam’s yearning for love is painfully sincere, his demeanor is Bogart-stony. There are some haunting tunes, among them the moody opener, “City of Night,” and some springy novelty numbers, like the macho but G-rated “American Man.” All are minimally accompanied by a piano/bass/percussion combo tucked into a salon-like corner and occasionally Frenchified by added accordion. But too many of Columbus’s lyrics are one step up from Hallmark in the banality department.

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Related: Year in Theater: Staged right, Dying breeds, The History Boys, More more >
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