BWW Review: 'S Wonderful AN AMERICAN IN PARIS Tour Enchants O.C.
Every season, it seems almost a given that yet another old---or not quite recent---movie has yet again been converted into a premium-priced stage musical... so much so that it's predictably common to find yourself seeing a movie-based musical rather than one that started from a completely fresh, original idea.
And, yes, we've all heard a multitude of reasons why it's a common practice---chief among them are that, 1, there is value in name (well, title) recognition and that, 2, there's (usually) a ready-made narrative in a film-based musical, thereby giving adaptors the necessary blueprints to easily craft settings, situations, characters, and, of course, songs. Most of the time, I find myself crossing my fingers while watching such theater pieces, hoping that the stage iteration is at least as good if not better than its cinematic counterpart (and, yep, it works vice versa, too, of course).
Well, you can certainly count the all-singing, all-dancing musical extravaganza now playing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in that ovation-worthy category, thank goodness.
Strikingly refined yet pleasingly grounded and altogether delightful, the gorgeous 2015 Broadway musical stage adaptation of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS---inspired by the Academy Award-winning 1951 movie musical of the same name---is a sweepingly lush, dance-centric production that combines the high-brow sophistication of classical ballet with the pure exuberance and emotional highs and lows of musical theater. The resulting hybrid? Absolutely beguiling. The national tour production continues its "S'wonderful" Orange County debut through May 7, 2017.
For those new to the not-so-complex story, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS---fairly similar to the basic plot of its source material---follows the story of three men and a lady (all talented artists in their own right) who find themselves at a crossroads as they try to navigate post-World War II life in Paris, France. The sting of war certainly remains fresh for them, and so they long for the day when the memory of such ugliness and inhumanity they saw first-hand during the fighting would simply be erased.
Enamored by the City of Lights---and an anonymous French girl that crosses his path---former American G.I. and budding fine artist Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox) decides to belay returning home to America to extend his stay in Paris, with hopes that the artist-friendly environment will reignite his love of painting... and, who knows, maybe even jumpstart a career. Jerry meets then quickly becomes close friends with fellow struggling artist Adam Hochberg (the utterly huggable Etai Benson, our everyman narrator), who is also an American war vet with the injury to prove it. He's decided to stay in Paris, too, but with starry-eyed dreams of being a respected musician and composer.
Both men share a casual camaraderie with local Parisian Henri Baurel (the dapper Nick Spangler), who secretly dreams of being a musical performer himself, an occupation that is perhaps far beneath what is expected of someone who comes from a wealthy family like his.
And then there's star-on-the-rise Lise Dassin (the stunning Sara Esty), the gorgeous Parisian shopgirl turned ballerina who becomes intertwined in all three men's lives.
During casual interactions, Lise seems guarded, timid, and even a little secretive (well, she has reasons). But when she dances---whether alone or with a partner---it's like watching someone being unabashedly free to express her true self. After one audition, all of Paris, it seems, becomes instantly smitten when they see her perform.
Of course, by amazing coincidence, it turns out that the mysterious French woman that Jerry's been obsessing over is actually Lise! And to further complicate the situation, it turns out Lise is also the same woman that has captured both Adam's and Henri's heart---so much so that Henri is contemplating a marriage proposal that both Jerry and Adam have previously advised him to pursue (with them not knowing who she really is, of course)!
On the career front, quick-witted nice-guy Adam continues to pursue every gig he can get (while not getting the girl, natch), and resorts to fantasizing about an idealized future. Meanwhile Jerry suddenly finds himself quite in-demand by wealthy American socialite Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti), a philanthropist and patron of the arts who wants to ingratiate herself into the Paris arts scene, but also push Jerry and his, uh, paintings (well, eventually) into the forefront of it. And, soon enough, she too has taken an interest in furthering Lise's future as well.
In between the soapy, melodramatic tug-of-war for Lise's affections between Jerry and Henri (and Adam, I guess, though he barely had a chance, sad to say), everyone dances... and dances... and dances some more. And, my gosh, all of it just soars. More than anything, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is a dance lover's dream, even as the show dazzles with some great musical voices to go along with the timeless quality of George and Ira Gershwin's magnificent music.
And therein lies the real beauty of this dance-devoted musical.
Following the basic blueprints of director Vincente Minnelli's grandiose MGM musical starring Gene Kelly, the stage version of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS reduces some of the original film's Hollywood "big-ness" but still packs palpable emotional power in its lovely, much more relatable presentation. The tour---just like the show's Paris and Broadway beginnings---is directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, who, with this production, expands from the similarly-titled ballet he created for the New York City Ballet in 2005 to fashion a full-fledged traditional song-and-dance-and-dialogue musical a decade later.
To achieve this new level of theatricality, Wheeldon incorporates a new book by Craig Lucas, itself an updated adaptation of Alan Jay Lerner's screenplay for the original film. While the basic stories remain pretty similar between the movie and the stage musical, Lucas' newer book adds more wit, thoughtfulness, and gravitas, in addition to being much more in touch with modern, real-world sensibilities that a 1950's-era screenplay could merely graze with cautious gloves. While, sure, the characters and the still-skimpy story points don't exactly get a major overhaul, they still do feel slightly expanded. No worries, though, because you'll be so mesmerized by the spectacular dancing that you won't find the time to be nitpicking all of the show's nearly invisible shortcomings.
Of course, arguably the most important aspect that all iterations---whether film, stage or ballet---have in common is the usage of classic works from a pair of titans of the Great American Songbook: George and Ira Gershwin. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS sets its stories around many well-known standards such as "I Got Rhythm," "S Wonderful," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," and, yes, the title song---all of which sound more beautiful than ever in new adapted arrangements by Rob Fisher performed live by an orchestra under the baton of musical director David Andrews Rogers.
Visually, the production pops with aesthetically pleasing vibrancy. Bob Crowley's truly exquisite costumes and set designs mesh seamlessly with Natasha Katz's lighting and 59 Productions' dynamic projections. When you sit back and take it all in, the entire production feels like a living, breathing canvas. Every scene feels like a work of art---especially fitting since at one point Jerry's own artwork comes to life, too!
Also framed perfectly: this amazing tour cast, all superb triple-threats who can all sing, dance, and act---while holding an entire audience in rapt attention.
Esty comes to the tour by way of the musical's Broadway company, promoted to the lead role full-time on the road and she darn well proves that she deserves the spot (even cooler... her twin sis Leigh-Ann Esty is the alternate in the role). Maddox (who just recently took over the role from Garen Scribner) is an extraordinary dancer in his own right (Ryan Steele is his alternate on certain performances). Overflowing with talent, both leads are equipped with powerful dance skills that complement their strong voices. Watching them partner in number after number is enthralling. That 18-minute dance suite in Act 2? Unbound brilliance.
Their costars, Benson and Spanger are both not only strong singers and hoof-sters but are also genuinely likable as well, making it easy for the audience to root and care for their respective characters' journeys, too. Benson, with his character's aww-shucks attitude and can-do demeanor will definitely win hearts, while Spanger (whose Henri sports a subtle "is he gay or is he not gay" story arc) will win our empathy for his struggle to be who wants to be during a time when it is much more difficult. I especially love their standout work in "I'll Build A Stairway To Paradise" which had the audience rightfully cheering.
The ensemble as a whole unit is wonderfully exciting and in sync during the dance numbers, making their collective appearances even more fun to watch. I can watch these guys dance for HOURS.
While certainly not a completely flaw-free musical, overall, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is a vividly entertaining hybrid of posh culture and fulfilling commerce, and by far one of the best, most accomplished dance-centered musicals ever produced for the stage. Ballet purists will appreciate it just as much as those, I dare say, who normally wouldn't even sit through a ballet performance. Additionally, this musical wholeheartedly proves that while most book-musicals expectedly use sung lyrics to convey emotions or story, no one should ever underestimate the storytelling power of a well-choreographed dance number or even an astonishing gravity-defying leap in the air.
Don't miss this beautifully-assembled production if it ever comes to a city near you.
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Photos from the National Tour of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS by Matthew Murphy. Portions of this review were originally published in OnStage. Performances of the National Tour of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, May 7, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.