Originally presented 1995 in Paris, the Broadway production directed by James Lapine opened at The Music Box Theater in 2002 and closed after 17 performances. Reconceived versions have been mounted several times.
We open with a green-screened scene of Paris. The cast is ‘pasted in’ as if, except for proportion, occupying a single staging area. Lyrical music sung without words acts as overture. This is an operetta.
Unassuming civil servant Marcel Dusoleil (Drew Gehling) is the only one in his office doing any work. “They’re driving me beserk by shirking, not working.” When the company is sold and a rigid new boss appears (cue march music), employees have no intention of changing their ways. The only one called on the carpet, for a letter to his mother written after completing everyone else’s work, is poor Marcel.
The hero, wearing a bowler hat and raincoat throughout – a nod to the artist Magritte’s everyman – feels unrequited love for Isabelle (Christiani Pitts), whom he observes staring out her window and very occasionally shopping. (Tech behind placing Isabella at her window with Marcel down below on the street is terrific.) Having been married off to a corrupt city prosecutor twice her age, she’s literally locked up most of the day and night. “Mother said be grateful/Mother said he’s wealthy/Love will happen later.” She dreams of being rescued, of true love.
Her husband (Adam Pascal, without a touch of credibility) has his own complaints. She can’t cook and “doesn’t move in bed.” He craves a dominatrix. (The word isn’t used, but description is clear.)
Denizens in the 18th arrondissement sing about their lives, mostly in counterpoint. The musical form repeats and repeats sounding pretty much the same every time. Gendarmes also have a song. Why? As does a street painter. Why?
One evening, as Marcel approaches his apartment, power goes out. He’s “stuck on the landing dying to pee.” Really? Suddenly he’s inside his home, then out, then in and realizes he’s walking through walls. (No mention of steps or an elevator.) The distraught clerk goes to see a doctor whose patients, having discovered he was a WWII collaborator, have abandoned him. (He’s the first of two out-of-the-blue Nazi sympathizers in their strangely concocted piece.) The diagnosis is a word longer than supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (from Mary Poppins). Marcel is given pills. He doesn’t take one.
The local streetwalker (Rachel York with a dreadful cartoon French accent) sings about being unappreciated. Where are her pearls, her diamonds? Marcel decides perhaps this is a way to use his gift, helping people get what they can’t secure themselves. “If I can’t give to the weak and poor/What are my talents for?” He reaches into a shop window, adorns her with jewels, and disappears before she can turn around. (Slow reflexes.)
Headlines in the morning papers declare the thief walked through walls (?) and nickname him Passepartout. We infer food and money have been passed out as well. Suddenly costumes are splattered with colorful paint – signifying better lives? The neighborhood is rich and enjoying it.
Passepartout becomes a folk hero. He decides the only way Isabelle will notice him is if he lets himself be arrested and does just that. Women come to see him, but not the object of his affection. Still, she dreams about him now. Marcel walks out of jail and observes his love, afraid to approach her. There’s a nifty ersatz Magritte background with multiple Marcels raining past clouds. At last, he gets the courage to appear in Isabelle’s rooms.
Apparently her husband knows of their attraction and has set a trap. Marcel goes back to prison. A court scene is technically splendid, with actors located behind the podium, in seats, in a jury box…all over the room, correctly sized as if actually in a three dimensional set. (Remember, no actor is anywhere near his cast mate.) The community supports their Robin Hood, but it’s Isabelle who saves the day with a secret about her unwanted husband.
The lovers get together. Just after, however, Marcel makes a stupid (unbelievable in the story) mistake when acquiescing to demonstrate for the press.
Even as a fairytale, the plot has gaping holes. Music and lyrics are predominantly pedestrian. Direction does nothing to develop characters.
Except for two leads, in particular the lovely Christiani Pitts, the cast is unimpressive. Anyone interested in the possibilities of streaming with green-screen sets, however, should jump at the chance to see this otherwise unsatisfying piece. I’d like to give credit where it’s due, but no one is listed for the accomplishment.
Why remount Legrand’s only flop?
Music- Michel Legrand
Libretto-Didier Van Cauwelaert
Adapted from Le Passe-Muraille by Marcel Aymé
English Adaptation- Jeremy Sams
Directed by Meg Fofonoff
Musical Direction Sean Mayes