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A CurtainUp Review

Under the Bridge

There are two kinds of people in the world it seems to me:
Those who think that life is hard work
And those who think life should be free.
--- Madame Calcet

There are two kinds of people in the world. I would Agree
Those who think they're better than you

And those who are no better than me
-- Armand

The above from the title song, focuses on the story's essential theme and establishes the conflict between the hobo and the homeless but hard-working woman trying to keep her impoverished family together.
Andrew Blake Zutty, Jacquelyn Piro, Ed Dixon, Maggie Watts and Alexa Ehrlich
Left to Right: Andrew Blake Zutty, Jacquelyn Piro, Ed Dixon, Maggie Watts and Alexa Ehrlich.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Nabbing Newbery Book Honor and American Library Association citations helped to make Natalie Savage Carlson's The Family Under the Bridge a best seller with the 7 to 11 crowd as well as their parents and grandparents. The Parisian setting, and the gentle lesson about the meaning of family and the rewards of giving and accepting help made this one of those books treasured for being entertaining as well as a tool for family discussions.

Though written some thirty years ago and set in 1952, homelessness is hardly a dead social issue so it's easy to see why Kathie Lee Gifford thought this book had the makings of a timely book musical which would appeal to its core audience (middle graders) as well as their older siblings and parents. Unfortunately what works on the page doesn't always translate easily to the stage-- especially in the form of a musical. And while Ms. Gifford has been faithful to the source material, Under the Bridge suffers from a confused identity. It's too much of a young kids' show to appeal to adults and older kids, and it's not quite exciting enough to keep the kids energized.

While not without charm, the story of three half-orphaned, homeless redheads (a brother and two sisters, whose father died suddenly and left them and their mother destitute) comes across as too derivative of other stories with adorable orphans, noble parents and a kind-hearted curmudgeon. The trouble is that there's not even a moment's doubt that Armand (Ed Dixon) is more hero than villain. The adventures around Paris never match the excitement of Scrooge learning his lesson through ghostly intervention. and three orphans, though well portrayed by Andrew Blake Zutty, Maggie Watts and Alexa Ehrlich. simply aren't as distinctive as Annie's title character and her fellow orphans.

My young co-critic, Jack Sommer, aged 11, found the end of the story easy to predict. When I asked him if he liked the music better than the story, he replied "Wasn't the music everything? "

Indeed, there's no shortage of music, so much that the show often feels sung-through. Director Eric Schaeffer does his best to keep things moving and to insure that the songs are smoothly integrated with the dialogue. He has actors use an aisle and the area in front of the stage but this doesn't overcome the fact that the Zipper stage is too small for much movement or dancing. The closest thing to a big, lively production number is "This Is the Gypsy Life" which is understandably reprised in the second act. Generally though, songs are presented with the singers statically grouped as for a still life painting.

The almost twenty songs are melodic even if most don't convey that catchy something to make a youngster likely to want to learn to sing more than a few songs from the CD that's already available -- most likely Suzy, Evelyne and Paul's one solo, "The Marriage of Lady Tartine." and the peppy "Half a Dream" they share with Armand.

Essentially the kids are accessory characters for Ed Dixon's Armand, Florence Lacey as Mirelli the upbeat Gypsy and semi-romantic interest, and Jacquelyn Piro as the children's proud mother --with Armand and Madame Calcet the characters taking the emotional biggest journey. The actors portraying the key adults all bring solid musical experience to their roles and are well supported by an ensemble that handles multiple roles with ease. Thursday Farrar and Tamira Hayden are especially fetching in their roles as the Do-Gooders with their vocal talents showcased in "Do-Gooder Lament."

The Bridge on the Page
Cover illustration of the book Family Under the Bridge
Jim Kronzer, obviously working with a limited budget, has used an arrangement of shutters and minimal props quite creatively, with the excellent small orchestra (2 keyboard players and a percussionist) tucked into a small shutter-fronted loge section -- and not nearly as ear shattering as Broadway's other musical about homeless people ( Brooklyn). However, as anyone who's seen Garth Williams' illustrations for the book (cover illustration included here), those shutters and a very basic platform arrangement don't make for much of a bridge -- no matter how much children stretch their always active imaginations. Anne Kennedy's predominantly brown, rust and green costumes suit Chris Lee's excellent, often somber lighting.

Though set in Paris, don't expect much of a Parisian flavor. In fact, except for some of the lyrics, and a single French accent (Ed Dixon's), this could be a spot under the George Washington or Queensboro Bridge.

Overall, the youngsters who were heavily represented at the holiday matinee I attended, were attentive but somewhat subdued. The Zipper is a fun theater. It's housed in what was once a real zipper making factory and many of the seats have been scavenged from old automobiles. It's an atmosphere that somehow promises a zippier experience than this well-meaning little musical delivers.

Under the Bridge
Book& Lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford
Based on the book The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson
Music by David Pomeranz.
Additional Music by David Pomeranz and Kathie Lee Gifford
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Musical Director: Paul Raiman
Cast: Ed Dixon (Armand), Florence Lacey (Mireli), Jacquelyn Piro (Madame Calcet), Dan Cooney (Jacques, Police Officer), Alexa Ehrlich (Evelyne), Thursday Farrar (Do-Gooder), Tamra Hayden(Do-Gooder), Greg Stone (Pierre, Monsieur Latour), Maggie Watts (Suzy), Andrew Blake Zutty (Paul)
Set Design: Jim Kronzer
Costume Design: Anne Kennedy
Lighting Design: Chris Lee
Sound Design: Kai Harada
Orchestrations:Brian Besterman
Vocal Arrangements: Paul Raiman, David Pomeranz & Kathie Lee Gifford
Orchestra: Conductor/Piano--Paul Ratman; Associate Conductor/Keyboard 2--David Wolfson; Percussion--Eric Halvorson.
Running time: 2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission
Zipper Theatre, 336 West 37th Street ( 8th/ 9th Avenues) 212/239-6200
From 12/01/04 to 2/20/05; opening 1/06/05.
Tickets: $55.00
Tues through Sat @ 7:00PM, Sat @ 2:00PM, Sun @ 1:00Pm & 6:00PM
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 29th press performance performance

Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Paris. Armand & Company
  • You Will Meet with Adventure Today. MireIi
  • Half a Dream . Armand & The Children
  • Under the Bridge . Armand & Madame Calcet
  • The Marriage of Lady Tartine . The Children
  • It Was My Bridge . Armand
  • This House Where We Live . Suzy
  • Do-Gooders Lament . The Do-Gooders
  • What Might Have Been . Armand & MireIi
  • This is the Gypsy Life! . Mireli & Gypsies
  • What Kind of a Mother Am I? . Madame Calcet, Do-Gooders & Armand
Act Two
  • This is the Gypsy Life (Reprise) . Company
  • He is with You . MireIi & Gypsies
  • Christmas is Everyone's Holiday. Company
  • The Sum of a Man . Mirel & Paul
  • Long As We Have Us . Madame Calcet, Suzy & Evelyne
  • A Clean Start . Armand
  • Something Called Love . Armand
  • Finale . Armand & Company
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