An American in Paris

coverAcclaimed director/choreographer and 2015 Tony Award®-winner Christopher Wheeldon received a Tony® Award nomination for Best Director and won the Tony Award for Best Choreography for this production. This show was also the most award-winning musical of the 2015-16 Broadway Season.

After the 2010 world premiere in Pittsburgh of  ‘S Wonderful – The New Gershwin Musical the CLO’s Van Kaplan began discussions with members of the Gershwin family about creating An American in Paris for the stage. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Craig Lucas chose to ground the story in the post World War II. Lucas continued to develop the characters and add their backstories to strengthen the plot.  He did not remake the movie, but instead crafted a fully realized story.

At the end of World War II, Jerry Mulligan, an American soldier, decides to stay in Paris and nurture his passion for painting. With a little help from kindred spirits Adam Hochberg, a composer and fellow veteran; and Henri Baurel, the son of wealthy French industrialists and wannabe song and dance man, they become fast friends and imagine a bright future in the City of Lights.

The intersecting point for al the characters is a ballet audition. Adam is writing the score for the new ballet and brings Jerry along to the audition. Henri’s parents are major supporters of the company so they are there along with Henri. Milo Davenport, an up and coming philanthropist, art dealer and ingénue is in attendance to add more feminine charm.

As the auditions, begin a stunningly beautiful aspiring ballerina, Lise Dassen, appears.  She is hoping to win a spot in the company but having arrived late is turned away. Adam, sensing she is the “one”, encourages her to stay and participate. As the other dancers are passed over and dismissed, Lise remains. She is the focus as Jerry, Adam and all of us in the audience fall in love with her and her stunningly graceful performance.

After Lise’s stellar audition, Milo announces she wishes to fund the new ballet with Lise as the star using Jerry’s designs. The plot then begins its twists and turns as long held secrets are revealed complicating the characters lives.

The story is told predominantly through dance, a beautifully executed fusion of classic ballet with Broadway style dance routines. Take a second in the “An American in Paris” ballet number to watch the dancers feet and in particular their shoes to see just how seamlessly this works. The ballet dancers are en pointe and the Broadway dancers in heels. It works as a lovely blend of both styles.

The importance of dance is reflected in the casting choices. Since April, McGee Maddox, former principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada plays the role of Jerry. Sara Esty, a classically trained ballerina from the Miami Ballet, is Lise. She has been alternate and standby for Lise for the Paris premiere and on Broadway prior to assuming the role full-time on the national tour and her experience shows.  Their dancing is a joy to watch. What’s missing is the smoldering sexual chemistry between them. The lust and love they share that is the cornerstone of the show’s story does not come across in this casting.

Etai Benson
Etai Benson

Etai Benson is a standout as Adam Hochberg who as the narrator sets the opening and close of the show. His stage presence, robust voice and acting skills draw you into the story and serves as the bond between Jerry, Adam and Henri. The importance of Adam’s character in essential to the story, as he causes Henri, Lise, Milo and Jerry to do the right thing for Lise in the name of love. Benson delivers this central theme in an understated yet solid performance. He is always there, never out front, but quietly setting the mood with his piano translating the tone of the show with Gershwin’s haunting melodies.

Nick Spanger as Henri Baurel in “I’ll Build You a Stairway to Paradise”
Nick Spanger as Henri Baurel in “I’ll Build You a Stairway to Paradise”

Emily Ferranti is enjoyable and fetching as the rich dilatant and aspiring philanthropist Milo Davenport.

Part of what makes the show a hit is the accomplished dancers and ballet corps who animate  Wheeldon’s choreography and direction. Music Director David Andrews Rogers brings out Gershwin’s complex and multi-layered score featuring “I Got Rhythm,” “Liza,” “”S Wonderful,” “But Not For Me,” “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” and orchestral music in the dance number “An American In Paris.”

The designers use every modern design tool and technology to create a colorful, flowing and fluid environment that easily transitions us around Paris. The set elements, projections and lighting tie together in a unified design concept that creates a multilayered environment built around French masterworks and Jerry’s sketches.  As pointe shoes and dancers prohibit modern automated scenery moving on tracks, the scenery literary dances on and off the stage with that same sense of fluid motion.

Sara Este as Lise
Sara Esty as Lise

The show is a sensory delight of color, sounds and movement. The costumes combination of color and textures draw your eyes in and direct your focus. For the audition scene all the other players except Lise are in muted colors. She is positively radiant in blue, the center of attention on a crowded stage. The spangles and feathers in “I’ll build a stairway to Paradise” and the eye popping colors of the “An American in Paris” ballet are feasts for the eyes. Lise’s signature flowing canary yellow dress has become a symbolic show icon.

If you love dance, beautiful choreography, the Gershwin’s music, and fabulous staging, then An American in Paris is a must see.

One final note, on opening night, early in the first scene there was a scenery malfunction that caused the show to stop briefly and regroup. The entire team handled it with the utmost professionalism with hardly a beat of delay between realization and bringing the curtain down. Following informing the audience of a hold and a few minutes to reset everything, the show restarted with Adam at his piano repeating his line “And this is how it really happened” to the applause of the audience.  Chalk up another theatre moment to remember for all of us at the Benedum on opening night.

An American in Paris, presented in cooperation with PNC Broadway Across at the Benedum Center with performances now to June 11th.

Photos courtesy of Matthew Murphy. 

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