PROVIDENCE - In "Paris by Night," Curt Columbus has crafted a sweet, old-fashioned Hollywood love story, the kind where two people meet in an enchanted city, fall instantly in love, are torn apart by daunting but surmountable obstacles, and sing beautifully all the while. You know: boy meets boy.
That, in fact, is the only real reason this show had to be written in the early 21st century, not the middle of the 20th. In every respect except the gender of its romantic leads, "Paris by Night" could be a Hollywood musical from the early 1960s. That may not sound groundbreaking - unless you are old enough to know how impossible it is to imagine Nat King Cole singing a love song to Cary Grant - but the show is so charming and heartfelt, so true to its characters, that it's easy to imagine it as a lost gem from a golden age.
That, in fact, is what Columbus set out to create: the kind of musical he loved as a kid, but featuring the kind of love story a young gay man in the 1960s and '70s could only dream of seeing. And Trinity Repertory Company, where Columbus is artistic director, gives the show a polished, warm-hearted premiere, briskly directed and choreographed by Birgitta Victorson, that helps make that dream come to life.
The show opens with a lovely, brooding ode to Paris, "City of Night," in which Columbus's lyrics nicely twist the familiar "City of Light" sobriquet with a more melancholy strain, given added plangency by Andre Pluess and Amy Warren's softly jazzy melody. The piano-bass-drum scoring continues throughout, creating a smoky, late-night ambience that feels just right for this romantic evocation of a '60s Paris that exists only in our dreams.
There are lighter moments, too: "The Art of Le Cafe," a snappy little tutorial by the worldly wise proprietress (Janice Duclos) on catching the eyes of both waiters and passersby, and "American Man," a fresh and innocent take on conventional ideals of manhood. But the score's strongest moments are its more bittersweet ones, particularly the moving evocation of romantic and artistic longing that closes both acts, "Making Something Last."
Joe Wilson Jr. sings that one with wonderful nuances of hope and heartbreak as the leading man, Sam, who has left San Francisco for Paris to escape a failed romance. Sam is a tattoo artist - which leaves room for metaphors of permanence and painful beauty that Columbus rarely pushes too hard - and it's his tattoo shop that attracts a young American soldier on leave, a boxing MP from West Virginia named Buck.
Sam is instantly attracted to Buck, but he's not sure how Buck feels. Neither are we, perhaps because Buck isn't sure himself - and the suspense and uncertainty of these early scenes helps to situate us in the fearful, secretive milieu of this earlier time. So does the presence of two of Buck's Army pals: the charmingly boyish Patrick and the loutish Frank, a villain so patent that, by the end, some audience members are actually hissing him.
Besides illustrating the potential threats to gay men in 1960, Frank's Neanderthal sexual attitudes allow the introduction of a subplot involving him, a lovely chanteuse named Marie (insouciantly, if sometimes inaudibly, played by Rachael Warren) and the innocent Patrick (a delightfully fresh Stephen Thorne). An older gay man named Harry, Sam's former college professor and current patron in Paris, portrays a threat of a different sort: the way people can reduce themselves to a lonely cliche when they see no other way to fit into the world.
Stephen Berenson gives this potentially troubling role a depth and self-awareness that lift it beyond stereotype. His Harry knows he's a character from a musical, a flamboyantly charming gay man whom we can imagine practicing his epigrams in front of the mirror. As he slowly reveals Harry's deeper feelings, particularly in the lovely "Harry's Lament" and the later, even lovelier "The Evening Air," Berenson creates a fully rounded portrait of a man forced by his times to be less than fully himself.
James Royce Edwards, too, displays layers of understanding and complexity as Buck, who begins as a clueless-seeming young jock from the sticks, then surprises himself and us by turning into someone far more interesting. And (not to spoil anything) his duet with Wilson's Sam, when it finally comes, creates just what Columbus set out to do in this quietly revolutionary show. It gives us an old song in a new key.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.