The Zipper Theatre
336 West 37th Street
Potomac Stages Off Broadway
Under the Bridge
New York finally gets a glimpse at some of the magic that Potomac Region theatergoers have come to expect of a musical at Signature Theatre – that is the Signature Theatre of Arlington Virginia, not the Signature Theatre of New York. The occasion is the limited run of a new family-friendly musical directed by Signature’s Eric Schaeffer featuring a cast including some Signature veterans as well as (as often happens at Signature) a Broadway veteran adding a strong leading performance. All of this takes place in a theater that, like Signature’s own home along South Four Mile Run Drive, is a small converted old space a bit out of the way, although the 230-seat space in New York isn’t as conducive to the sense of immediate connection between audience and performance as is Signature’s 136-seat home. For one thing, the seats are all old bench car seats with an occasional bucket seat thrown in, complete with seat belt. A strange shape of the room and an unfortunately placed pillar complicates the design challenge, but Schaeffer’s design team of artists he works with at Signature create a strong connection with adults and kids in the audience with the help of a superb performance by Ed Dixon and the kind of strong performances Signature audiences have come to expect of both Jacquelyn Piro (110 In The Shade) and Florence Lacey (One Red Flower, etc.) whose Broadway credentials are also extensive.
Storyline: At Christmastime in the Paris of 1953 a recently widowed mother of three must leave her children under a bridge over the Seine during the day while she heads off to work at a job that pays too little to pay for lodging for a family of four. The three children charm a hobo who thinks of the space as his (“It Was My Bridge” he sings) and overcome his resistance to any complications in his life – like family responsibilities. With the help of a gypsy band, the hobo, the mother and the three children end up a family with their own home on Christmas eve.
Most of the attention Under the Bridge has drawn in the theater district of New York has been due to the fact that the book and lyrics for this adaptation of the children's book “The Families Under the Bridge” is by Kathy Lee Gifford. Many think of her simply as Regis Philbin’s co-host, but her career has been extensive, including a Broadway debut performing Putting It Together twice a week in the revival which was also Eric Schaeffer’s directing debut on Broadway. Her work here is thoroughly competent with the story told clearly and cleanly, if a bit predictably, and lyrics that feature some nice word-pictures with even a touch of word-play. Just as her lyrics are satisfactory, so too is the music by David Pomeranz whose melodies give the cast a few themes to sink their teeth into.
Ed Dixon takes the role of a nonconformist drawn into a conventional life style which has been such a staple of family friendly shows for ages, and gives it all he has. He’s marvelously grouchy and gruff, so that when he melts into family man it’s a touching transition. Remember that this takes place in a fictitious time/place where a mother could leave her children in unorthodox shelter while she goes to work and not be arrested for child abuse, and a man choosing to live unemployed under the bridge is a “hobo” and not “homeless.” Jacquelyn Piro who worked with Schaeffer on the national tour of Big and then again at Signature with 110 In The Shade for which she was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award, is searing in her “What Kind of Mother Am I” first act closing and charming in her duet with Signature regular Florence Lacey “He is with You.” But she does her best work quietly as she listens to Maggie Watts, as her daughter, dream of “This House Where We Live.” All the warmth of maternal love is in her eyes while Watts sings. The trio of children are appropriately cute without too much saccharine sweetness given that this is, after all, a show directed toward families with younger children to take to the theater.
The design team is also replete with Signature regulars. The set consisting primarily of walls of shutters is by Jim Kronzer which Chris Lee turns into a wonderland with his lights. Anne Kennedy has designed a number of fine costumes including the rags for Dixon’s “hobo,” the colorful gypsy dress for Lacey, a prim and up-tight outfit for Piro’s early scenes, nicely distressed but clean clothes for the kids which shows that Piro is a good mother even if she lacks sufficient income, and notably effective costumes for secondary characters so their station is quickly evident. Paul Raiman works with Schaeffer again as music director and leader of the three piece band. No credit is given for a choreographer and here the show could have benefited from the addition of one more talent from Signature. Perhaps Karma Camp could have helped with the rather clunky small dance sequences. Only once, with a kickline sitting on the lip of the stage, does the movement to the music match some of the charm of the other elements of the production.
Music by David Pomeranz. Book and Lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford based on the book The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Music Direction by Paul Raiman. Orchestrations by Brian Besterman. Design. Jim Kronzer (set) Anne Kennedy (costumes) Chris Lee (lights) Kai Harada (sound). Cast: Ed Dixon, Alexa Ehrlich, Thursday Farrar, Eleasha Gamble, Florence Lacey, Jacquelyn Piro, Greg Stone, Maggie Watts, Andrew Blake Zutty.