Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

An American in Paris
Arizona Broadway Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, The Marvelous Wonderettes: Caps and Gowns, Jersey Boys, Hostage and Audra McDonald with Seth Rudetsky


Andrew Ruggieri and Rebecca Shulla
Photo by Scott Samplin
Even though composer George Gershwin died in 1937 at just 38 years old, in his very short life he composed dozens of popular hit songs and classical music pieces. One of his most famous works is his 1929 composition "An American in Paris," which was inspired by his time spent in Paris. That piece was later expanded into the 1951 Oscar-winning Best Picture An American in Paris, and in 2015 the movie was adapted for the stage using many songs from the film along with other Gershwin tunes and classical compositions.

Arizona Broadway Theatre presents the Phoenix regional premiere of the musical in a sumptuous production that features an exceptional cast, gorgeous creative elements, and exquisite choreography and direction by Kurtis Overby, ABT's Associate Artistic Director.

Using the main plot and characters from the Vincente Minnelli directed motion picture, Craig Lucas' new book adds elements and story points, keeping the material familiar enough for fans of the film while also making it fresh and intriguing. The story is set at the end of World War II and follows American soldiers Jerry Mulligan and Adam Hochberg who have decided to remain in Paris instead of returning to America. Both men are artists inspired by their Paris surroundings. Jerry is a painter and Adam a composer and they strike up a friendship with Henri Baurel, a wealthy French man who dreams of being a song and dance man in New York. When Jerry and Adam become involved in the creation of a new ballet, all three friends find themselves infatuated with the ballet's mysterious lead dancer Lise Dassin. But each man is unaware that the others have fallen for the same girl.

By integrating many well-known songs with music and lyrics by George and his brother Ira Gershwin, including several from the film, with a romantic story and some inspired dance pieces, the stage adaptation is a perfect combination of song, story and dance. Songs include "I Got Rhythm," "The Man I Love," and "But Not For Me," plus the classical pieces "Concerto in F," "Cuban Overture," and the title ballet piece. Though the plot is fairly basic, in that it is a typical boy meets girl story with the added intrigue of friends being in love with the same girl, Lucas' book adds dimensions to the film characters by incorporating the fact that just about every one of the main characters has a secret. Also, the title ballet is incorporated much better into the musical than in the film where it was only a dream in Jerry's head.

Kurtis Overby has directed and choreographed many shows at Arizona Broadway Theatre but this work, which features dozens of scenes, numerous locations, and a range of dance styles, has to be the best and most elaborate work of his that I've seen. From ballet to jazz and even a bit of tap, Overby uses many forms of dance to create numerous showstopping moments as well as musical numbers that are full of passion and romance. All of these numbers are danced by a gifted cast, including an exceptional ensemble, who all deliver moves and steps that are well executed, fluid, and infused with passion and style. Even the scene changes are danced, with the ensemble moving set pieces and props on and off stage with a flourish to quickly move us from one location to the next. There isn't a weak moment or dance in Overby's immaculate production.

The cast deliver performances that are refined and nuanced. Andrew Ruggieri's portrayal of Jerry is full of romance and a strong determination to win over Lise. His singing voice is rich and his dancing athletic. As Lise, Rebecca Shulla delivers a performance that is thoughtful, with elements of mystery and sadness. Whoever plays Lise needs to be an exceptional dancer, since the character has been selected to dance as the prima ballerina of the Théâtre du Châtelet Ballet, and Shulla's dance skills are excellent with grace, beauty, and an elegant passion.

Michael Brennan and Michael O'Brien deliver winning performances of comic moments and poignant touches as Henri and Adam, respectively. The war-injured Adam serves as the narrator of the story and O'Brien infuses the part with realism and cynicism. When he sings the number "But Not for Me," it is a touching performance that makes the audience feel for this fractured man. Brennan is equally as good as the upbeat Frenchman who has secrets of his own. He energetically leads the cast in "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" that also nicely incorporates O'Brien. Also, all three men sing a gorgeous version of "'S Wonderful."

In the supporting cast, Beatrice Crosbie does very well as Milo Davenport, the wealthy benefactor of the ballet who tries to use Jerry to her advantage but learns some life lessons of her own along the way. Carolyn McPhee and Christopher Cody Cooley are appropriately refined and polished as Henri's parents who hide the secrets of their past decisions behind the need to keep up appearances.

Joshua Condon's expert music direction and his conducting of the 10-piece orchestra deliver an abundance of exceptional and richly detailed musical moments with every Gershwin classical piece sounding exquisite. Aaron Sheckler's gorgeous scenic design uses the large legs of the Eiffel Tower as a framing device that almost all of the scenes play out against, which adds a heightened sense of romance. The costumes designed by Savana Leveille are period and character appropriate and, like Karyn Lawrence's evocative lighting design which uses a combination of deep blues and purples, is full of color, beauty, and non-stop romance.

An American in Paris begins right after the end of WWII when many people didn't know how to react to a world that had been so dark for so long. As the voice of the show, Adam provides a glimmer of hope in the second act when he comments, "Life is already so dark. If you have the talent to bring hope, why would you hide it?" That moment also expertly describes the impact of Arizona Broadway Theatre superb production, which, with a gifted cast, beautiful creative aspects and some sensational dancing, is an incredibly moving production of optimism, life and passion—the perfect antidote for any darkness in the world.

An American in Paris, through March 1, 2019, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria AZ. The production moves to the Herberger Theater in downtown Phoenix from March 8-24, 2019. Tickets can be ordered at www.azbroadway.org/paris or by calling 623-776-8400 for the Peoria dates or 602-252-8497 for performance dates at the Herberger Theater in Phoenix

Book: Craig Lucas
Music and Lyrics: George and Ira Gershwin
Direction and Choreography: Kurtis Overby
Music Direction: Joshua Condon
Scenic Design: Aaron Sheckler
Lighting Design: Karyn Lawrence
Costume Design: Savana Leveille
Wig/Makeup Design: Amanda Gran
Sound Design: Connor Adams
Stage Manager: Leigh Treat
Executive Producer: Kiel Klaphake
Casting and Artistic Producer: Cassandra Klaphake

Cast:
Jerry Mulligan: Andrew Ruggieri
Lise Dassin: Rebecca Shulla
Henri Baurel: Michael Brennan
Adam Hochberg: Michael O'Brien
Milo Davenport: Beatrice Crosbie
Mme. Baurel: Carolyn McPhee
M. Baurel: Christopher Cody Cooley
Mr. Z: Matthew Blum
Olga: Laurie Trygg
Ensemble: Lauren Alagna, Emma Bartolomucci, Matthew Blum, Evan Dolan, James Du Chateau, Sebastian Goldberg, Alyssa Ishihara, Scotty Jacobson, Lauren Paley, Charles Pang, Megan Schwartz, Emily Stys, Kara Ziringer


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