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The Joe Hill legend -- and musical near-misses; Two off Broadway musicals

"Snapshot" and "Paris Lights" seek to be musicals with a difference. The snapshots of the first title are the more than 30 songs which tell a story of middle-class American family life. "Paris Lights" refers not so much to the luminous aura of the French capital as to the expatriate American literary lights who congregated there in the 1920s. It is subtitled "The All-Star Literary Genius Expatriate Revue." Snapshot A musical by Herbert Kaplan (music) and Mitchell Bernard (lyrics). Directed by Thomas Gruenewald.

According to a program note for the new show at the Hudson Guild Theater, "each snapshot deals with a particular emotional moment in the lives of six members of a family. . . . The length of the snapshot depends on the time necessary to convey the essence of the event. The overall impression upon the viewer/listener is similar to the impression or essence one is left with after looking through a family album."

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The explanation rather sums up the problem with this modest musical. Like many an assortment of real-life snapshots, the Conents suffer from overexposures , an unselective focus on the commonplace, and the failure to perceive when enough is enough. A sampling of song titles indicates the common denominator Kaplan-Bernard approach: "Someday," "Siblings," "Normal," "Forty-Three," "Watching the News," "Breakfast," "Ordering the Pizza," and "What Marriage Is." Some of the songs are mildly poignant or mildly amusing. Some end with a punch line, most with an anticlimax. Gruenewald does what he can to make these tuneful kinfolk seem worth the chronicling.

The characters are clearly projected and strongly sung by John Cunningham and Patti Karr (the Parents); Kathy Morath, Robert Polenze, and Elissa Wolfe (the Children); and Helen Blount (the Grandmother). Paris Lights "A musical celebration in their own words" with music by William Russo, book developed and adapted by Michael Zettler. Directed by George Ferencz

No concern about being pretentious inhibited the collaborators who have put together "Paris Lights," at the American Place Theater. William Russo and Michael Zettler have assembled an assortment of celebrities that includes Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, and Sylvia Beach.

A program footnote assures that "all the words spoken were written by the characters portrayed, the places existed, and the events really happened. The lyrics to the songs are by poets who were in Paris in the 1920s. The result is a kind of literary vaudeveille set to music for a jazz trio. Between the songs and dances, Gertrude Stein (Trisha Long) delivers Steinesque observations, Sylvia Beach (Jane summerhays) talks about her famous bookshop, Shakespeare and company, and there is a deal of incidental chatter.

The impersonations are clever, with several of the actors performing two parts. Miss Summerhays and Nicholas Wyman defy the hazards of Bill Stabile's elaborate set with some fairly spectacular dancing. The ensemble jam session to Fitzgerald's "Jam" climaxes the first act with the liveliest excerpt in the anthology. But after all the quotes have been quoted, "Paris Lights" leaves one pretty much in the dark about its point and purpose.


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