Review: Musical Theatre West's AN AMERICAN IN PARIS Dances Into Long Beach

MTW's new “reimagined” production of the 2015 stage adaptation of the hit film is a feast for lovers of dance, but book-musical fans will likely feel short-changed.

By: Apr. 21, 2023
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Review: Musical Theatre West's AN AMERICAN IN PARIS Dances Into Long Beach
Luke Hawkins and Sareen Tchekmedyian.
Photo by © Caught In the Moment Photography.

Inspired by the Academy Award-winning 1951 MGM movie musical that starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron and was directed by auteur Vincente Minnelli, the 2015 Broadway stage adaptation of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS first presented itself as a gorgeously romantic, sweepingly lush new show that---like its cinematic inspiration---combined the high-brow sophistication and remarkable technical prowess of classical ballet and stylized jazz, the iconic, now timeless compositions of George and Ira Gershwin, and the exuberance and pluck of good ol' fashioned musical theatre.

By the time the show's first national tour came to Southern California in 2017, I was utterly mesmerized and thought the show was, well, "S'wonderful" overall.

Fast forward to 2023, and, inexplicably, some of that initial elation has gotten a bit diluted for me.

Currently on stage at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach through April 30, 2023, Musical Theatre West's brand new iteration of the musical is, for all intents and purposes, a well-oiled, beautifully-produced production with discernible high-caliber values, showcasing incredible feats of footwork and plenty of the expected theatrical splendor that has become synonymous with this historic theater company.

The show's technical accoutrements are indeed undeniably stunning. But underneath that glossy surface, the "book" parts of the show---adapted here by Craig Lucas from Alan Jay Lerner's original screenplay---can sometimes feel somehow less momentous now, revealing that, in not so many words, that without the wow factor of all that dancing, the "story" we're left with feels... well, a bit lacking.

Of course, yes, I have to say that I walked away from MTW's production feeling very entertained (the dancing is just incredible), and it had me smiling and cheering at its conclusion. But, at the same time, I also thought parts of the show here---unlike during the previous times I've seen it---left me occasionally wishing for a fast-forward button.

Review: Musical Theatre West's AN AMERICAN IN PARIS Dances Into Long Beach
Louis Pardo, Luke Hawkins, and Michael Bullard.
Photo by © Caught in the Moment Photography.

It's unfortunate, because the ensemble of enthusiastic artists that has been assembled here are some very impressive artists in their own right and are palpably giving it their all. A great example is the dance number that takes place at a department store, which by its end has turned into a dizzying frenzy of pure joy thanks to the work of these talented artists.

Much of my initial adoration for this show, I'm now reassessing, is, yes, its mesmerizing dance numbers, particularly the concluding dialogue-free ballet sequence which, like in the movie, is a very loooong dance number that lets the artist-characters speak through movements, rather than, oh, using actual verbal communication, which---now in the age of having seen some really good book musicals since AN AMERICAN IN PARIS came to be---has spoiled us into wanting more story and character development in our musical theater (that's not a big ask, right?).

So now I have to ask myself... has other musical theatre content really evolved that much that a seemingly old-school-leaning charmer like AN AMERICAN IN PARIS can be considered "just okay" by comparison?

Like its source material, the musical adaptation also focuses on a trio of men and the beautiful lady that enters their artistic universe.

Much of the story is "narrated" by former army vet-turned-concert pianist Adam Hochberg (Louis Pardo), your typical "nice guy" character that gets friend-zoned more times than he would like. Adam first regales us with the story of a group of artists---that includes himself---who long for the day when the memory of the recent war and the ugliness and inhumanity they saw first-hand during the fighting would simply be erased by their creative pursuits.

But, actually, the musical mostly focuses on Adam's close friend, a former American soldier Jerry Mulligan (Luke Hawkins) who spontaneously decides to extend his stay in Paris to pursue his long-dormant passion for art, perhaps even as a post-war civilian career. He instantly finds a kindred soldier/artist spirit with Adam, and the two become fast friends.

Along the way, Jerry has a meet-cute and falls madly in love with a mysterious shy French girl named Lise (the enchanting Sareen Tchekmedyian), a guarded shopgirl with dreams of becoming a prima ballerina---which, we soon learn, is quite the contrast from her tragic recent past.

Review: Musical Theatre West's AN AMERICAN IN PARIS Dances Into Long Beach
Rebecca Ann Johnson and Luke Hawkins.
Photo by © Caught in the Moment Photography.

Unfortunately, what Jerry doesn't know is that this intriguing young woman is also Adam's unrequited crush. Additionally, unbeknownst to both Adam and Jerry is that Lise is about to be betrothed to their mutual friend Henri Baurel (Michael Bullard), the bougie son of wealthy French elites, who is likely to inherit the family business.

Henri himself also has a secret (well, possibly two, if you read his, ahem, body language): he secretly wants to pursue a singing career, but, naturally, fears that his business-minded parents won't approve of their son getting involved in such artistic endeavors. So he dashes away in secret to a cabaret club to develop a song-and-dance act with his friend Adam, himself a budding music composer saddled with an unfortunate limp he got from fighting in the war.

Meanwhile, Jerry gets a much-needed career boost when his paintings (and, um, Jerry himself) catches the attention of wealthy American socialite Milo Davenport (the luminous Rebecca Ann Johnson---this production's most intriguing player), a philanthropist and patron of the arts who wants to ingratiate herself into the Paris arts scene... but also help push Jerry and his, uh, paintings (well, eventually) into the forefront of it.

And, soon enough, Milo too has taken an interest in furthering Lise's future as well, especially after a momentous audition for Henri's mother, Madame Baurel (the glorious Leslie Stevens) for the Théâtre du Châtelet Ballet turns budding talent Lise into an overnight sensation.

All the while... all three men have no idea they're all in love with the same woman. So who will she choose? The romantic lover? The stable, secure, well-connected beau? Or the sweet, kind dude?

This overwrought melodrama, of course, is the show's way of weaving different Gershwin tunes into any given scene---and we've got many hits here, including "S'Wonderful," "I Got Rhythm," "Fidgety Feet," "Stairway to Paradise," and "You Can't Take That Away From Me."

Overall, the show entertains more than it confounds.

Review: Musical Theatre West's AN AMERICAN IN PARIS Dances Into Long Beach
Michael Bullard and Leslie Stevens.
Photo by © Caught in the Moment Photography.

First, the good: MTW's production---directed and choreographed by Jeffry Denman---looks gorgeous. While David Arsenault's fascinating forced-perspective angled set pieces are dwarfed by the too-wide stage of the Carpenter Center, the strong lighting designs by Jean-Yves Tessier give everything---both backdrops and people---a needed lively pop of MGM-approved Technicolor (the pink-and-blue bisexual lighting schemes in certain scenes were not lost on me, by the way).

Bradley Allen Lock's vibrant period costumes give every character a touch of Parisian magic while Michael Salvatore Commendatore's projection designs complete the environments to transform the Carpenter Center into an artistic rendering of the French capital.

The production doesn't just look gorgeous, it also sounds absolutely gorgeous, too. The rich, sweeping sounds from the show's large pit orchestra---conducted by the baton of musical director David Lamoureux---make the Gershwins' tunes swing and boom. Naturally, those tunes sung by the show's full ensemble are bursting with charm and heart, almost themselves a de-facto invitation to hum along (but quietly, under our breath, of course).

And, yes, the dance numbers here are, as expected, just spectacular. While the finalé ballet did feel like it went on too long (to say very little), the rest of the show's many dynamic numbers reiterated the show's ultimate raison d'être: to tell a complicated love story through the language and artistry of dance---though that reliance on movement may now prove to be its inescapable flaw as well.

Review: Musical Theatre West's AN AMERICAN IN PARIS Dances Into Long Beach
Sareen Tchekmedyian (center) and the cast of MTW's
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. Photo by ©Caught in the Moment Photography.

And now... for the not so good.

With the show's purposeful emphasis placed on kinetic energy and poetic movement, some of the expected aspects associated with musical theater shows---even jukebox musicals---aren't as punctuated here as they normally would be.

The very idea of movement doing a lot of the narrative heavy lifting is very much top-of-mind in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS---so much so that even scene transitions feel like a whirlwind of chaotic activity that seems interesting the first and second time, but not so much the tenth or fifteenth time.

The production incorporates a turntable on stage---a wow-inducing idea for some shows like HAMILTON or LES MISERABLES---but, here, sometimes its usage is more of an unneeded distraction rather than a cool effect (as the scene transitions continue throughout the night, I was chuckling more and more at the sheer over-affected movements of simply moving a table or chair into position).

And with dance pushed as a top priority, some of the vocals weren't as strong and assured as I had hoped. The heart and passion are definitely there, though, you can tell.

Strangely, unlike the undeniably charming film, the stage musical version does attempt to dive deeper (but not much more) in delivering an interweaving narrative, all set against the new realities of a post-World War II Paris as seen through the eyes of citizens attempting to reintroduce the Arts back into their lives after going without it for much too long.

Review: Musical Theatre West's AN AMERICAN IN PARIS Dances Into Long Beach
Sareen Tchekmedyian and Luke Hawkins.
Photo by © Caught in the Moment Photography.

Even so, the book portions that sought to provide more layers of context to the stories of the musical put the show on pause in most scenes, though, curiously, both Johnson and Stevens---in their supporting character arcs during non-musical scenes---turn out to be the two most compelling performances here.

With first-rate production values and heart-sweeping songs offering a gorgeous distraction to its inescapable flaws, MTW's production of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is still worth a look, especially knowing that it employs a large ensemble cast that is clearly stacked with very talented dancers. Keeping that in mind ahead of time will make for a more enjoyable evening.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.

Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West.


Performances of Musical Theatre West's production of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS continue through Sunday, April 30, 2023. The Carpenter Performing Arts Center is located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA. For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at


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