Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
An American in Paris is bursting with glorious George and Ira Gershwin songs, and selections from Gershwin's classical oeuvres, including the stirring work that gives the show its title. It has dance, dance, and more danceballet, tap, jazz, and show-stopping Broadway numbers, courtesy of Christopher Wheeldon's sublime Tony Award winning choreography. It blends set, costume, lighting and projection designs to create singular images that are not mere trappings, but have an active role in expressing the feelings and advancing the narrative. The tour has managed to cast all the roles with singer-dancer-actors of amazing talent. The 13-member orchestra, under David Andrews Rogers' direction, know their way around this music, finding the sweetness in every note.
Like the movie, which had a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner, the musical is set in Paris immediately after World War II, depicting both the elation of victory and the devastation of six years of war and occupation. The show opens with a ballet sequence set to Gershwin's "Concerto in F," depicting tearfully reuniting couples, wounded soldiers, food shortages, and an overall sense of disbelief, before it zeroes in on two American GIs and a Frenchman. The GIs are Jerry, an artist trying to forget the war, and Adam, a pianist and composer wounded in action. The Frenchman is Henri, who wants to refute his wealthy parents' plan for him to join the family business, and pursue a song and dance career in America. The three become fast friends, self-described as "the three musketeers."
Henri tries to work up the nerve to propose to a lovely girl who has been close to his family all their lives and Jerry falls in love with a lovely young ballet dancer whose path repeatedly crosses his. Unbeknown to them, they are the same girl, Lise. Milo Davenport, a wealthy American being courted to contribute to the ballet, says she will, if the company commissions a new ballet score by a pianist who has impressed her (Adam) to star a young dancer who has impressed her (Lise) and with set designs by an artist who has impressed her (Jerry). Milo is impressed not only by Jerry's art, but by Jerry, and she tries to seduce him, but his heart is aflutter for Lise. Complicating things more, Adam is smitten by Lise, the muse for whom he is composing the ballet, while Henri's mother, vexed by his inability to pop the marriage question to Lise, wonders if his romantic leanings lie beyond "the fair sex."
Will this all sort out in the end? Will we learn why Lise feels an obligation to Henri's family? Will Milo learn that her money can't buy everything? And will Adam work through his composer's block and create a Gershwin-like masterpiece? I'll let you guess, but as I said, the show radiates joy. The story isn't the point, though the witty book by Craig Lucas is a pleasure to follow. The point of An American in Paris is its infatuation with melody, romance, grace, color, heart and redemption. It is a new beginning for Paris, shaking off the debris and heartache of a long nightmare, but ready to move on to well-earned happiness; the same is true for the band of characters striving on stage, trying to build life anew, armed with hope.
Christopher Wheeldon directed as well as choreographed An American in Paris, putting every performer, from principals to ensemble members, in just the right place at every moment, blending the actors' movements into the projected backgrounds, moving set pieces as if they are part of the corps de ballet, and drawing precisely the right amount of feeling from each scene. Sets and costumes by Bob Crowley, lighting by Natasha Katz, sound by Jon Weston, and projections by 59 Productions all offer prime testimony of the high state of their arts. In particular, the synchronization of Crowley's Tony-winning sets, Katz's lighting, and the folks at 59 Productions' projections (sharing the Tony for Best Lighting with Katz is it time for projections to be a category unto itself?) are breath-taking.
McGee Maddox is fabulous as Jerry: handsome, charming, a terrific dancer who makes impossible moves seem easy, and a heartfelt singer. Sara Esty is perfect as Lisewith elfin prettiness, a lithe dancer who conveys her character's torn heart. Etai Benson is great as Adam, cracking wise to cover up a broken heart, swift on his feet and hearty with song, while Emily Ferranti brings out Milo's jaded confidence and handily expresses a range of feelings from the optimism of "Shall We Dance?" to the defeat of "But Not for Me." On opening night, understudy Christopher M. Howard filled in for Nick Spangler as Henri, with a solid performance in every way.
It is interesting that Gershwin wrote "An American in Paris" in Paris during the mid-1920s, on a trip intended to inspire a follow-up to his symphonic work "Rhapsody in Blue." Gershwin sought instruction from the great impressionistic composer Maurice Ravel, whom he greatly admired, Ravel declined, referring him to legendary music teacher Nadia Boulanger (her students included such luminaries as Aaron Copeland, Quincy Jones, Virgil Thomson, and Phillip Glass). Even she would not tamper with Gershwin's genius, and is said to have told him "Why try to be a second rate Ravel when you are already a first rate Gershwin?" The result of his stay in the City of Light, "An American in Paris," is first-rate Gershwin to the nth degree. If it captured the energy of life pushing the boundaries, with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Ernest Hemmingway then holding court in Paris, it is as perfectly suited to convey the resumption of hope and confidence in tomorrow of post-war Paris. In the musical, Jerry's drawings are in the impressionistic style, nicely rendered but nothing new. His stage designs for Adam's composition, the "American in Paris" ballet, are something elseeccentric shapes reminiscent of Calder, bold color blocks that presage Mondrian. A new era, eyes on tomorrow, joy!
American in Paris captures that joy, a most wonderful musical theater gift.
An American in Paris continues at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts through June 18, 2017. 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets from $119.50 - $46.00, Standing Room: $39.00. For tickets call 651 224-4222 or go to Ordway.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.anamericaninparisbroadway.com.