Drab Umbrellas of Cherbourg
I wish that I could go on talking about the film, but it is my unhappy duty to report that the enterprising Two River Theatre Company which opened its beautiful new theatre in Red Bank last spring with a terrific production of You Can’t Take It With You has come a cropper with its revival of Sheldon Harnick’s stage adaptation of Umbrellas. This is the first fully staged revival of the work since it was premiered at New York’s Public Theatre in 1979.
The story spans the years 1957 through 1962, and tells of the romance of 17-year-old Genevieve, who works in her mother’s umbrella shop, and Guy, a 20-year-old garage mechanic. Their relationship is interrupted when Guy is called up to fight in Algeria. Umbrellas is divided into three sections, The Departure, The Absence, and The Return. There is one intermission after the first section, and, although the first section is the longest of the three, it comes very early in the arc of the musical. It would probably work best without any intermission, but that is the least of the problems here.
Umbrellas is a sung-through work written in the original French by director Demy. The jazz infused music is lovely throughout, but as the words are essentially written and delivered as dialogue, it usually sounds to the ear as mood-setting underscoring. Harnick’s words are smooth and colloquial, capturing Demy’s intent fully. The various characters have musical themes which repeat at key moments and, in doing so, reflect character. In the case of Genevieve, it is the haunting love theme which attained wide popularity here in the Norman Gimbel translation “(If It Takes Forever), I Will Wait For You.” Gimbel wrote his own lyric to a theme for another character which also became a popular hit here (“Watch What Happens”). Almost unwaveringly, the Harnick adaptation follows the film's music and dialogue, line by line.
Director Jonathan Fox has taken what I find to be a decidedly mistaken approach to Umbrellas. The stage is underlit and the actors appear far off in the distance, lost on the large dark stage. Inexplicably, the entire stage appears to be set in shades of gray. Until late into the first act, the stage apron, which is so important to the intimate design of the theatre, remains unused as the actors appear imprisoned on a center stage circular revolve which hardly ever stops revolving clockwise. This is distracting and seems to dictate the staging. Another distraction is when the restless revolve surprisingly turns counter clockwise in the second act. There is a grayish arch framing the stage, and more arches in corners downstage. The principal scenic property is a freestanding multipaneled window (with black frames) with a storage bench on one side. There are six tall flats placed about the stage which in abstract fashion mirror its design. Neither do the costumes provide any flair or color. The staging is placid and slow (with waits between scenes not covered by any music). In sum, one of the screen’s most vibrant, romantic and moving musicals is here distant, gray and uninvolving. A sign which appeared in the last scene on screen has oddly been moved to the opening scene. As a result, it was several minutes into the scene before I realized where we were. Scenic designer Neil Prince and costume designer Moira Shaughnessy performed the wonderful design work for last season’s final Two Rivers production, so I can only assume that the major problem here is the result of a wrongheaded concept.
If memory serves, when this adaptation was staged at the Public Theatre in 1979, it had much greater vitality. I recall the use of screens to provide a cinematic flow, and the employment by the cast of a panoply of brightly colored umbrellas (most likely during curtain calls).
Max von Essen sings well and is a likeable Guy. However, neither he nor Heather Spore as Genevieve generate any sparks. The strong voiced Ken Krugman as Roland Cassard, a business man who has been hurt in a previous relationship (his character is carried over from an earlier Demy film) and now takes a shine to Genevieve, strongly conveys dignity and quiet strength. It is a delight to see the always reliable Maureen Silliman singing beautifully as Genevieve’s mother. The name of her umbrella shop provides the title for this musical.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg continues performances (Eves: Wed.-Sat. 8 pm/ Mats: Sat. & Sun. 3 pm) through October 9, 2005 at the Two River Theatre Company, 21 Bridge Street, Red Bank, New Jersey 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400; online www.trtc.org/
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg Adapted from the film written and
directed by Jacques Demy; Music by Michel Legrand, French Lyrics by Jacques
Demy, English Language Stage Adaptation by Sheldon Harnick in association
with Charles Burr
Cast (in order of appearance):