BWW Review: AN AMERICAN IN PARIS Transforms TPAC's Jackson Hall Into Musical Theatre Heaven
There is a new vision of heaven tap-dancing its way through my brain - replete with beautiful showgirls and handsome chorus boys performing a show-stopping version of George and Ira Gershwin's "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" from An American in Paris, the sumptuous musical now onstage at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall through Sunday, November 5 - and, quite frankly, if that is not what paradise will look like should I arrive there after my untimely demise, I will simply refuse to stay. For if paradise isn't the gorgeous and glittery, utterly theatrical vision supplied by this altogether splendid production, I'll say "to hell with it (and me, I suppose)," because surely paradise is set to a lush and memorable Gershwin score. Anything else is simply a poor facsimile of the real thing. Est-ce que tu comprends?
Inspired by the iconic 1951 film that starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, the stage version (which debuted at Paris' Theatre du Chatelet in 2014 ahead of its award-winning Broadway run, which bowed in 2015) is darker and deeper than the confectionary air supplied by its celluloid iteration. Book writer Craig Lucas has wisely re-set the action of the play in 1945, shortly after the liberation of Paris by the Allies, thus freeing the City of Light from the dark and dismal war years under Nazi occupation. Lucas' book, therefore, offers a compelling portrait of the city, its environs and its people, emerging from the oppression and fear of those troubled times to once again claim their place among the world's leading centers of creative expression.
Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has reinvigorated An American in Paris, creating a fantastic world that evocatively captures the struggles and challenges of the post-Nazi era - the opening sequence, set to Gershwin's Concerto in F, is nothing short of heart-stopping in its depiction of the conflicting mix of joy and horror that exemplifies that era - while weaving a magical tale of artists flocking once again to the city to be inspired and to allow themselves to become enraptured by everything that Paris has represented for centuries. The result? A captivating and emotional two-and-a-half hours of superb theatrical achievement that may leave you breathless with so much beauty and exhilaration that can be packed into that all-too-short time span. Clearly, you may want to return to the theater again and again to be whisked away to a time and place that seems only to exist in dreams of paradise.
Under Wheeldon's direction, each character among the sizable cast (some 35 actors are listed in the show's playbill) is treated with deference and great care, allowing each fictional creation to take on the attributes of genuine, flesh and blood people, ensuring that each engages the audience to full effect. The dramatic arc of each character is so richly crafted that one cannot help but to fall a little bit in love with each of them - and so palpable are their emotions, so vivid are their choices that while they are at once theatrical and almost other-worldly, they remain authentic and accessible.
The design of An American in Paris is extraordinary, the production's visual aesthetic riveting one's eye to the stage. Bob Crowley's exquisite costumes are eye-popping reiterations of period fashion and his settings provide a stylish backdrop for the various scenes in the musical - which range from the busy streets of the city to the almost placid and serene paths along the Seine - transforming a stage in the middle of America into a pastiche of Parisian locales. Projections, credited to 59 Productions, become almost another character in Lucas' story, allowing the tale to flow after a near cinematic fashion. Natasha Katz's lighting design is equally transformative, illuminating each scene with deft artistry to focus the audience's collective eye where it needs to be to aid in the storytelling.
Conductor David Andrews Rogers' 14-member orchestra plays the score that is comprised of some of George Gershwin's most beloved works with such finesse that you may believe you are hearing them for the very first time although the fact that you recall Ira Gershwin's lyrics with such ease you recognize them immediately as favorite songs from your personal history. The power of music to engender such a visceral response is staggering and when it is played by musicians with such grace it can elicit powerful and perhaps surprising emotions, providing a sensory overload you must struggle to keep in check lest you disturb those patrons seated around you.
Case in point: "I Got Ryhthm," the song first introduced in 1930's Girl Crazy (along with "But Not For Me," also included in the musical numbers performed in An American in Paris, and "Embraceable You," which is heard in the underscoring), as performed by the show's three leading men and the entire company, is as good as it gets, transporting you instantaneously to an earlier era, making you feel as though you are a part of the rich tapestry and historical context of American musical theater. And just when you are recovering from the sense of elation and exhilaration provided by "I Got Rhythm," you are treated to another gem from the Gershwins' catalogue, then another and another. It's almost an embarrassment of riches that feeds the soul and wins the heart over to the story playing out just in front of you on an expansive stage. What seems intimate and personal is actually felt just as potently by every other person seated among the 2,000 or more seats in Jackson Hall. That, gentle readers, is what musical theater is all about and it is that which proves An American in Paris is a show for the ages, one that should be heralded by the sound of angels' trumpets.
Among such a treasure trove of theatrical gifts, Wheeldon's choreography - which lifts the production to such stunning heights that accurately recalling each moment is virtually impossible - provides An American in Paris with an expressive language to translate the story in yet another staggering visual way. He interprets Gershwin's music with such grace and vigor that you are spellbound, particularly during the eponymous set piece of Act Two, "An American in Paris," the balletic sequence that you may emerge from as if from a dream, that ideally captures everything about the city of its inspiration in the mid-1940s as it emerges from the depths of war and remembrance with a vitality that is awe-inspiring, both reflective and optimistic as it moves ever forward. With McGee Maddox (as leading man Jerry Mulligan, the American G.I. with the soul of an artist) and Allison Walsh (as French ballerina Lise Dassin, a Jewess who survived the occupation under the protection of a brave and steadfast family of gentile industrialists) leading the company, the breathtaking piece is performed with thorough commitment and electrifying passion.
And then there is the sheer spectacle and thrilling theatricality of the aforementioned "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" (that, interesting enough, comes right before the "American in Paris" ballet) that transforms before your eyes from a slightly seedy, down-at-heels jazz club in Paris to the stage of Radio City Music Hall, thanks to the wizardry and razzle-dazzle of theatrical legerdemain. It's a production number that is certain to send your heart soaring and to prove to you once more why you love musical theater so very much. Performed with consummate showmanship by the charming pair of Matthew Scott (as Jewish American composer Adam Hochberg, another ex-G.I.) and Ben Michael (as the aspiring nightclub performer cum resistance fighter and scion of a family of French textile moguls), it's even better than I have inartfully articulated in this review.
Unsurprisingly, what with a production with such terrific technical elements such as these, Wheeldon's cast prove themselves equal to the challenge by crafting performances that are as engaging and accessible as could be imagined. Maddox, making his musical theater debut after a highly successful career as a principal ballet dancer with the National Ballet of Canada and on the stages of other internationally renowned companies, proves himself the very definition of a "triple threat" as Jerry Mulligan. There is no question that his dancing in unparalleled, but he acquits himself admirably as both a singer and an actor with the daunting task of taking on a role made famous by Gene Kelly himself. In the process, he delivers a performance that defies comparison to his screen forebear, instead creating a Jerry Mulligan all his own.
Walsh's seemingly innocent and near-waifish Lise is the very portrait of the romantic heroine, imbued with a passion for the dance that enables her to beautifully convey every dancer's hopes and dreams in a way that even the most stumble-footed audience member can identify with - and she is captivating in her lovely book scenes with Maddox, and her "The Man I Love" interpretation is wonderfully romantic. It's easy to see why each of the show's leading men is so smitten with Lise from the very moment she meets them.
Matthew Scott, given the unenviable task of narrating the story throughout the play, does so with a remarkable stage presence, at once endearing and clumsily charming. Ben Michael, as the effete Parisian Henri Baurel, whose urbane sophistication barely masks a self-effacing humor with a scant lack of self-confidence that make him all the more appealing, is perfectly cast. Together, the two men's rendition of "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" is the show's musical highlight, for me at least, and together with Maddox their "I Got Rhythm" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" are splendidly performed.
Kristen Scott, as American heiress Milo Davenport, very nearly steals every scene she is in with her superb timing and impressive command of the stage. Stunning in Crowley's period costumes, she looks as if she's stepped straight off the pages of American Vogue in every scene and her duets with Michael on "Who Cares?" and her real-life husband, Matthew Scott's Adam, on "But Not For Me" are terrific.
Teri Hansen and Don Noble, as Henri's well-to-do, snobbish and yet rather surprisingly liberal parents, the Baurels, are notable in their roles, as is Kyle Vaughn (a favorite of Nashville theater audiences, thanks to his role in the world premiere engagement of The Nutty Professor at TPAC some five years ago) as the imperious Mr. Z, the ballet master with an iron will.
An American in Paris. Music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin. Book by Craig Lucas. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. At Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall. Through Sunday, November 5. For tickets and other information, go to www.TPAC.org or call (615) 782-4040. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).