It is raining gently in Cherbourg; its citizens are passing each other on the street going about their business, each holding up a different color umbrella. Panels of Lucite windows move around up and down to give the illusion of a changing scene, as does the stage’s large turntable. A neon sign that spells Esso establishes Scene I, the time is 1957. It is a lovely sight (credit set designer Neil Prince and lighting designer Aaron Black) set to a jazzy musical prelude.
In 1964, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," a French-language film written and directed by Jacques Demy and starring Catherine Deneuve, created a stir internationally as a break-through sung-through musical with a primarily jazz-propelled score composed by Michel Legrand. The film’s principal ballad, a virtual leitmotif, "I Will Wait for You," became a popular hit. Although an English-language stage adaptation by lyricist Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof), in association with Charles Burr, was presented at the Public Theater in 1979, it hasn’t, to my knowledge, been revived in the past 25 years. This is why the embracing, beautifully sung and directed production in Two River Theater Company’s new 350-seat theater is notable.
While Demy’s film was also praised for its gaudy use of Technicolor and vivid cinematography, the more muted stage version, not nearly as boldly expressionistic, retains a cinematic flow as well as the inherent poignancy of the film. The plot has always been somewhat of a groaner for American tastes, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t illicit our emotions. When 16-year-old Genevieve Emery (Heather Spore) isn’t helping out her widowed mother (Maureen Silliman) in their chic umbrella shop in Cherbourg, she is pledging eternal love to Guy Foucher (Max von Essen), a 21-year-old garage mechanic, who lives with his elderly wheelchair-confined Aunt Elise (Patti Perkins) and her attentive caregiver Madeleine (Robyn Payne).
One night of lovemaking before he has to report for his two-year military service in Algiers has the predictable consequence. Apparently an injury prevents Guy from being regular with his correspondence. Genevieve’s letters also become less frequent. Financially in a bind, Genevieve’s mother encourages her to marry Roland Cassard (Ken Krugman), a decent middle-aged gem merchant who has helped her out financially in the past and also loves Genevieve.
When Guy returns, he finds the umbrella shop closed. Married to Cassard, Genevieve and her mother have moved to Paris. Genevieve now lives a life of luxury with Cassard, her daughter, and her mother. Guy falls in love with caregiver Madeleine after his aunt dies, and they have a son. Four years later, Guy and Genevieve have a chance meeting. And, if you have a dry eye at this point, you haven’t got a heart. You could say that the French have a way with the cliche (didn’t they invent the word?), and they certainly run rampant in this text.
Like Marcel Pagnol’s classic masterpiece of French cinema, "The Marseille Trilogy" (consisting of Marius, Fanny, Cesar), which shares a remarkably similar plot, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" exalts in its mundane passions, heartfelt emotions, and irrefutable sadness. Legrand’s score, a smorgasbord of progressive jazz and classic pop idioms, is never less than appealing. Demy’s common language-filled recitative is often jarringly unlyrical and even laughable, as in:
Guy: Genevieve, my sweet Gen’vieve.
Genevieve: What’s that smell? It’s gasoline.
Guy: You use your perfume, I’ll use mine.
Genevieve: Guy, my love, I love you so!
It’s surprising that Harnick didn’t attempt to affect a more purposefully poetic lyricism to the lyrics. But some would say, therein lay their charm. This is not to imply that the use of sung-recitative doesn’t propel us into the utter normalcy of the story and the destiny of its lovers. Framed by the rain at the beginning and the gentle falling of snow at the end, "Umbrellas" finds its center in the believability of its lovers and the ability of a director faithful to the musical’s heightened reality. An attractive pair, Spore and von Essen pour their hearts out in song and even manage a tango with eclat.
Although Cassard’s dramatic needs are minimal, Krugman gives us reason to want to hear his resonant baritone voice again. Payne’s warm mezzo voice matches her stage personality, as Madeleine. Silliman isparticularly effective as the mother who regrettably is not the one Cassard wanted to marry. Kudos goes to musical director Nathan Hurwitz and to the excellent musicians in the pit. Another plus is the clarity of singing with not a word lost to faulty technology. If this sedate musical could have used a little more dramatic turbulence and creative intervention, Jonathan Fox’s generally precise and fluid direction, nevertheless, keeps its generally melancholy spirit in tact.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," through Sunday, October 16. Two River Theater Company, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank. $32 to $48. 732-345-1400.