Friday, January 20, 2017

Review: "An American in Paris" celebrates dance in the City of Light

Garen Scribner and Sara Esty
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"'S wonderful! 'S marvelous!" That opening line of a classic Gershwin tune is also a perfect capsule review of the musical An American in Paris, playing the Fox through January 29th.

Adapted from the 1951 movie musical of the same name, An American in Paris is a big, beautiful valentine to both the darkness and the light of post-war Paris-and to the art of the dance.

Playwright Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless) and musical arranger/adapter Rob Fisher (long-time music director for the City Center Encores! Series) have assembled an impressive collection of Gershwin songs for the score, but singing definitely takes second place to dancing in this show. Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who got both a Tony and an Outer Critics Circle for his work here, has loaded up An American in Paris with a stunning variety of dance styles, from classic ballet moves to a brilliant pastiche of early 20th-century popular dances (in the lavish "Stairway to Paradise") to an ingenious amalgam of mid-century angular "modernist" choreography for the big title number in the second act. It's no small thing to keep up visual interest in a show that runs nearly three hours, but Mr. Wheeldon has managed it neatly.

"Stairway to Paradise"
Like the film that inspired it, An American in Paris is the story of three mismatched friends in the newly-liberated French capital: American war veteran and artist Jerry Mulligan, fellow vet and struggling composer Adam Hochberg, and Henri Baurel, scion of a wealthy French family and a would-be song and dance man. All three become smitten with the mysterious ballerina Lise Dassin, creating a romantic triangle (or maybe a quadrangle) that moves the plot along. There's also a secondary story involving Jerry's brief fling with American philanthropist Milo Davenport.

Unlike the movie, Mr. Lucas's book gives the secondary characters a bit more depth and makes Jerry less of a self-centered jerk. The original film, in my view, works only because star Gene Kelly's high-powered charm makes it possible to overlook his character's terminal immaturity. He still behaves badly here, but redeems himself by admitting as much and apologizing for it.

The cast for this tour is impressive. Leads Garen Scribner (Jerry) and Sara Esty (Lise) both have substantial ballet credits in their biographies, and it shows in their limber and precise dancing. They both have solid voices and are often eerily reminiscent of original film stars Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. Note that at some performances, Ryan Steele and Leigh-Ann Esty alternate in those roles. Etai Benson (Adam), Nick Spangler (Henri), and Emily Ferranti (Milo) are also very strong performers, as are Gayton Scott and Don Noble as Henri's very proper parents. They're supported by a versatile and talented ensemble.

"I Got Rhythm"
An American is Paris stunning visually as well as theatrically, thanks largely to inventive projections by 59 Productions that allow us to see Paris through Jerry's eyes as his illustrations come to life. The show uses very little in the way of physical scenery, which makes the many scene changes quick and seamless. That's especially effective in numbers like "Stairway to Paradise," which marks Henri's cabaret debut. As he begins to imagine himself in Radio City Music Hall, the scene quickly shifts to the glossy production of his dreams, and then moves just as quickly back to the small café set.

A similarly magical transformation happens in the title number, set to just about all of Gershwin's original tone poem. In the context of the show, it's the big ballet that stars Lise, with music by Adam and sets and costumes by Jerry. We start out seeing everything from a backstage perspective, looking out through the curtains at the conductor and the audience. One lightning-fast change later, we're seeing it from the audience's perspective, with Jerry's colorfully cubist visuals.

So, if you love great dancing and the classic sounds of the Gershwin brothers, trip on over to the Fox in Grand Center for An American in Paris. Performances run through the 29th and tickets are available at the Fox web site. Note that, because of the long running time, evening shows start at 7:30.

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