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Issue Date:  January 14, 2005

'Under the Bridge' casts a musical charm


A Parisian hobo finds the family he never knew he wanted and a homeless mother and her three children discover they already have what they need to be happy in “Under the Bridge,” the enchanting new musical at Manhattan’s Zipper Theatre through Feb. 20.

Based on the Newbery Medal-winning book The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson, the show features book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford and music by David Pomeranz. Following the 1958 storybook closely, the musical tells the tale of Armand (Ed Dixon), a French hobo who lives under a bridge in 1953 Paris, and how his life is changed when he returns one day to find a homeless family has moved into his space.

While homelessness is a serious concern in our world, the gravity is downplayed in the show, as it is in the book, in a way that doesn’t trivialize the subject but attempts to emphasize that people can be happy in simple ways; it is, after all, a children’s story. Right from the start, Dixon creates an Armand full of joie de vivre, who, despite a strong supporting cast, is always the star of the show. In the opening number, “Paris,” Armand sings of his love for his city, describing it as a great feast. “No, you haven’t loved till you’ve fallen for Paris,/hopelessly caught in her spell./No you haven’t lived until you’ve tasted Paris./How could you bid her farewell?/That magical, tragical, glamourous, amourous,/delicieuse mademoiselle!”

But Armand’s carefree life is about to be transformed, as his gypsy friend Mireli (Florence Lacey) predicts in “You Will Meet with Adventure Today”: “Don’t be scared of the path you can’t see/or strangers you don’t know by name/for in the blink of an eye -- mysteriously -- /your life will be never the same.”

This is one adventure Armand thinks he can do without, at least at first. He professes to hate children, referring to them as starlings, but it isn’t long before he’s won over by Suzy (Maggie Watts), Paul (Andrew Blake Zutty) and Evelyne (Alexa Ehrlich), who follow him around Paris while their mother, Madame Calcet (Jacquelyn Piro), works in a laundry. Homelessness is new to them; their father has only recently died and they have been evicted. Armand, however, enjoys the freedom, explaining in “Half a Dream” how he is able to be happy with very little. “Half a dream is better than having no dream at all./Half a miracle is plenty enough, even when it’s small./Half a world is all the world I need, it seems to me./If this is the half I have in this world,/what better world could there be?”

But the Do-Gooders (Thursday Farrar and Tamra Hayden), who don’t see it as a good world, want to take the children from their mother and put them in a charity home. The gypsies come to the rescue, disguising the children in colorful clothes and sheltering them in their caravan, much to their mother’s horror. “To think we have fallen so low,” she laments. “My children at home with gypsies.” But when the gypsies welcome her, too, offering food and a feather bed, she learns one of the main lessons of the book and show -- not to look down on people because they live differently. “I’ve been wrong about Armand and the gypsies,” Madame Calcet later admits.

She is right about another of the show’s main themes -- the importance of family -- as she sings in “Long As We Have Us”: “Some people spend each penny buying everything they see,/but I would give each cent I own to keep you close to me./For there’s nothing in this world I’d rather be than a family -- a family./No, there’s nothing more that we need to discuss/long as we have us.”

Much to his delight, that family now includes Armand, who has found an apartment they all can share. In “Something Called Love” he sings of finding the one thing he was missing in what he thought was his perfect life. “I didn’t know that I wasn’t rich./I had all I needed in my nice little niche./Nothing was missing that I could think of/’til I came face-to-face-to-face/with something new, something called love./And now when I look in their eyes,/I hear their laughter, I hear their cries,/I find to my great surprise I feel something I never dreamed of,/something, something called love.”

Unlike other musicals for children I’ve seen in recent years, “Under the Bridge” is a show adults will cherish even if they don’t have a child with them. The story is complete and involving, rather than gimmicky and contrived, as some works for children are, with lovable characters the audience really cares about. The songs are lively, the kind one sings for days, and the dance numbers colorful but simple. I highly recommend seeing it while it’s still in its cozy space at the Zipper; some of its charm could get lost if it transfers to a large Broadway house. If you’re not in the New York area, read the book, listen to the CD and hope that a production of “Under the Bridge” comes to a stage near you before too long.

Retta Blaney’s latest book, Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors, spent six months on’s list of 10 best-selling books on entertainment biography in 2004.

Related Web site

The Zipper Theatre

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2005

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