BWW Review: AN AMERICAN IN PARIS at Yardley Hall
A third evolution of the American classic AN AMERICAN IN PARIS took the stage at Yardley Hall inside the Carlsen Center at Johnson County (KS) Community College to an almost full audience of 1500 souls.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS has been reborn as an ambitious piece of modern musical theater. It first opened in Paris n 2014, then in New York, before journeying across the pond for engagements in London's west end. This particular production is the second iteration of a road company. It is a Non-Equity tour produced by BIG LEAGUE productions.
BIG LEAGUE has spent the resources to hire quality performers, built the professional settings, and installed skilled musicians in the pit, but one has to wonder if this live on-stage rendition of Gershwin's delightful music has stretched the aspiration beyond its later creator's grasp.
The Leads Jerry Mulligan (Branson Brice) and Lise Daskin (Fiona Claire Huber) are super dancers. Brice even has Kansas City roots as a BFA Graduate in Dance of UMKC. The supporting corps de dancers are likewise excellent. (I would ordinarily say "corps de ballet" but it seems inappropriate here.)
Secondary leads TJ Lamando as Adam, Daniel Cardenas as Henri, and Bella Muller as Milo are likewise very good singers and solid actors.
If AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (the musical) has more than competent performers, super choreography, an excellent score, good production values, familiar characters, and a built in audience from an earlier 1951 film exploration, what could go wrong?
My guess is there are three major deficiencies. Think of the stage musical version as a puzzle with gorgeous individual pieces that do not quite fit together. The emphasis on dance of different kinds has created a kind of creative dissonance. The tone of the stage version is much darker than the earlier filmed version. There is an attempt to graft today's social sensitivities and back stories on to what was in 1951 much more a light entertainment. The stage version put significant additional demands on the performers and becomes difficult to follow for an audience who may have not studied the film.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS by the American Musical genius George Gershwin was first performed as a Jazz-influenced orchestral suite by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in December of 1928 at New York's Carnegie Hall. It is a record of Gershwin's own experiences as an advanced student of musical composition living in Paris in the early 1920s. He is the AMERICAN IN PARIS.
Gershwin himself called the piece a "rhapsodic ballet." George Gershwin sadly passed away in 1937 at age 39 of a brain tumor without ever knowing what would happen to this one of his masterpieces.
Ten years later, discussions were ongoing with the Gershwin estate. In 1948, George's brother Ira sold rights to his brother's music to MGM. A postwar script was written by Alan J. Lerner. The American became former soldier Jerry Mulligan. Director Vincent Minelli hired star/dancer/ choreographer Gene Kelly (then almost 40 years old) and allowed him to fulfill his creative vision. Kelly spotted (then fourteen year old) Leslie Caron in the Les Ballets des Champs-Elysees, and remembered her when it was time to cast AN AMERICAN IN Paris (the 1951 film).
Craig Lucas's script for the musical stage version follows the Lerner story, but is much darker and connected to the fallouts from World War II than the film had been. Actor Adam Hochberg becomes a sort of pseudo narrator rather than the comic relief his predecessor Oscar Levant had been previously. The characters have much more backstory and more tortured pasts. Each one is damaged in some way. This requires a much more nuanced actor relationship between the characters.
I think the truth is that the playwright has attempted to stuff more into two and a half hours than the audience can absorb. All the pieces parts are excellent, but the audience is left wanting something a little different than what they were able to receive from the stage. Not better or worse... just different.
I encourage you to see AM AMERICAN IN PARIS when you get an opportunity. Enjoy the pieces, the performers, the dance, the music, the sets, the costumes, and see how they fit together for you.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS played February 15 and 16 at Yardley Hall at JCCC. Watch for it to come back.