On stage, ‘An American in Paris’ delivers the goods
BOSTON – The national touring production of “An American in Paris” is billed as“A New Musical,” which is true, even if some of the elements of it have been emblazoned in our minds since the 1951 classic movie that starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.
The 2015 Broadway adaptation garnered four Tony Awards, validating the decision to re-invent the piece.
Any musical that starts with the music of George and Ira Gershwin is already starting the game on second base, and this production features several four-star members of the Great American Songbook: “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “’S Wonderful,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” are just some of the numbers.
What Kelly and Caron didn’t have in 1951 and this show does, is state-of-the-art theatrical magic. This “American in Paris” is nothing less than a dazzling visual delight, with beautifully rendered projections of iconic Paris sights, rolling set pieces that becomes frames for works of art or mirrors, and gorgeous costumes. The sets and costumes are by the inimitable Bob Crowley, the projections by 59 Productions.
And while the visual and aural delights are many, they are still not a match for Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography. One of the world’s most celebrated ballet choreographers, Wheeldon had no experience directing a musical before this, but it just proves again that talent will out.
It is 1945 Paris, after the end of World War II, and Garen Scribner is the Gene Kelly part of Jerry Mulligan, an American soldier who decides to stay in Paris after the war and pursue a career in art. Scribner, a former soloist with the San Francisco Ballet, was first alternate in the part in the Broadway production and while this is a dance first, voice second show, he also has a fine voice and stage presence.
Sara Esty, also an alternate in the Broadway production, is just as solid in the part of Lise Dassin, the mysterious French ballerina who attracts the attention of not only Mulligan, but another American expatriate. Adam Hochberg is a former Army corporal left with a bad leg from a war injury, but it hasn’t derailed his career as a pianist and composer; he is our narrator who brings us into the story and also sees himself as a possible match for Lise.
The third part of the equation is Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler), a member of a prominent French family who becomes engaged to Lise – there’s a backstory involving World War II – but harbors a secret dream to become a cabaret/nightclub singer, a desire he dare not disclose to his staid, traditional mother (Gayton Scott) and father (Don Noble). Henri may not be completely honest with both himself and others about his sexuality, which complicates matters.
Emily Ferranti’s Milo Davenport a wealthy American patron of the arts who befriends Jerry and wants to be more than just a friend.
With jaunty production numbers such as “Fidgety Feet,”where Jerry leads a cadre of dancers, or Henri in his role as an aspiring nightclub singer in “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” Wheeldon shows that in addition to his balletic expertise he is equally at home choreographing traditional production numbers.
One of the most recognizable pieces of music in film or theatrical history is the first few notes of the “An American in Paris,”, a piece of music so well-recognized when you hear it you instantly know the show it came from and the ballet number associated with it. Just as the dancing of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron lit up the 17-minute show-within-a-show sequence in the movie, this stage production has its own 13-minute ballet number built around the music, as Lise imagines herself dancing with – and then actually dancing with – Jerry in a romantic pas de deux that allows the characters to communicate through their movement: no dialogue needed.
If the show falters, it’s in those those moments when Craig Lucas’ book descends into melodrama as Lise’s would-be suitors fall by the wayside. In this case, falters can be interpreted to mean a momentary interruption in the almost unabated delights that Wheeldon and his cast have in store for the audience.
I didn’t see “An American in Paris” on Broadway, but it is rare to see a national touring company that has apparently packed up everything you saw on Broadway and put it on the road.
You need a huge show to really fill the cavernous Wang Theatre and make the folks in the mezzanine and balcony feel the buzz, and this show does just that.
Given our treasured memories of the movie, the musical adaptation of “An American in Paris” promises a lot; the good news is that it delivers on all counts.
The national touring production of “An American in Paris.” Music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin. Book by Craig Lucas. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. Set design and costumes by Bob Crowley. Musical score adapted, arranged, and supervised by Rob Fisher. At Citi Wang Theatre, Boston, through Nov. 6. Tickets: 800-982-2787,www.citicenter.org