Is it damning Under the Bridge with faint praise to call it the best "homeless people living under a bridge" musical of the season? Maybe, but at least the presence of Brooklyn on Broadway gives the maudlin, predictable show at Off-Broadway's Zipper Theatre a chance to look and sound decent. Under most circumstances, this show wouldn't be quite so lucky.
But possessing as it does a pinch or two of earnestness, a few gentle laughs, and music that doesn't threaten to rupture your eardrums, Under the Bridge is easy to take even if it's not easy to swallow. This is a show that seems to take great pride in being a family musical: You can take your children or your parents without fear of unexpected offense, boredom, or excitement.
Bland, evanescent pleasures like these are what many will expect from a show written by Kathie Lee Gifford. The former talk show host and sometime singer and actor has done a perfectly serviceable job adapting Natalie Savage Carlson's children's book The Family Under the Bridge for the musical stage, and she hasn't faltered in any way that will matter to her built-in audience. But she also hasn't noticeably stretched herself to provide something that will linger in the memory much after the show completes its run on February 20.
Another dose of daring might have been advisable to help mask the story's odiferous clichés: There's a gruff homeless man named Armand (Ed Dixon) who slowly melts under the warmth of a poor but proud mother (Jacquelyn Piro) who moves herself and her three children under the bridge Armand has long called home. Armand is friends with a band of kind-hearted gypsies led by the exotic Mireli (Florence Lacey), and they all must deal with villains in the form of menacing cargo movers (and children sellers) and Christian do-gooders determined to take the youngsters away. And darned if they don't all discover they're some kind of a family in the process.
It can't have been easy, but Gifford generally prevents the material from descending into complete cloying sentimentality. Near the end of the second act, when the central characters must meet the mounting responsibilities of their ever-expanding circle of surrogate relatives and make sacrifices for the greater good, the show even approaches the genuinely heartfelt and touching. That this show generates real emotions - however briefly - is a pleasant surprise in an otherwise too-pleasant evening.
But while director Eric Schaeffer has paced the production consistently and staged it tastefully, it's never buoyed by the syrupy score on which Gifford has collaborated with David Pomeranz. Gifford's lyrics, like her book, are acceptable freshman efforts, though they lack nuance and wit and don't always rhyme correctly. Pomeranz tries, with some success, to summon some French flavor (in this production's band, led by musical director Paul Raiman, the accordions are synthesized), though these efforts impact the show little as a whole: Everything pitches along with a musty cleanliness not befitting the homeless in the show's 1953 France setting or any other place and time. (Anne Kennedy's dry-cleaned dustbin costumes and Jim Kronzer's too-pretty, shutter-strewn set don't help evoke Gallic squalor.)
One song, Armand's borderline violent "It Was My Bridge!", does unearth some harshly honest emotions, and Dixon delivers them explosively. But it's his, and the show's, best moment; other performances and songs are less memorable: Lacey must subdue her weighty belt voice beneath watery, non-specific sentiments like "You Will Meet with Adventure Today" and "He is With You"; Piro sings nicely and conjures an amiable character, but is stuck with unsatisfying songs, including her pallid plaint "What Kind of Mother Am I?" for the first-act finale; and the big group numbers ("Paris," "This is the Gypsy Life!", "Christmas is Everyone's Holiday") are intended more for entertainment than story or character purposes.
As for the children, Maggie Watts, Andrew Blake Zutty, and Alexa Ehrlich know they're cute, precocious, and talented, and they never let you forget it. But each also displays an appealing innocence that, despite the workmanlike material they're saddled with (Watts sings an attractive but flavorless ballad about her dream home in "The House Where We Live," for example), prevents them from ever vanishing into the background. Their crooked smiles and fresh-faced exuberance make it impossible to write off Under the Bridge entirely.
Perhaps it's unsurprising that the kids come off so well; Gifford's as famous for being a mother (Cody's 14 now, if you can believe it) as a TV personality, and she knows how to write for the under-12 set. That's admirable, and more theatre songwriters would do well to develop that ability, but Under the Bridge would play much better if Gifford wrote for the adults in the audience, too.