BWW Review: Falling in Love with AN AMERICAN IN PARIS at the Dr. Phillips Center
Paris is the city of love and this allure draws people to find themselves surrounded by art, light, and human connection. Set to the music of George and Ira Gershwin, the music of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS are instantly recognizable, but come with a twist in interpretation. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS harks back to the Golden Age of Broadway with archetypal characters, upbeat melodies, and long dance pieces.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS begins just after World War II. Lucky soldiers return home from the horrors they witnessed on the battlefield. American soldier, Jerry Mulligan finds himself in Paris post-war in hopes of pursuing his art passion. Jerry befriends another former American soldier, Adam who is a struggling composer. In his travels around Paris, Jerry meets a girl and falls head over heels in love in a moment. There is just something about Lise Dassin and all the people who meet her that makes this story complicated. Much like life, it all boils down to lack of communication. The plot is a slow burn made up of contrasts: love vs. war, color vs. monochrome; loud movement vs. subtle scene changes.
Winner of four Tony Awards including Best Choreography and Best Scenic design, it is no wonder this show attracts such fine dancers. Christopher Wheeldon's choreography ranges the gamut of dance. This a dance show first and foremost, set to musical theater. It's different than a standard musical, but it is this difference that makes it enjoyable. Afterall, isn't the point of art about exposure to different ideas? The choreography elevates the entire production and adds subtle elements of storytelling that cannot be found in a traditional Broadway show.
If dance isn't your thing, then come and watch the sets by Bob Crowley. It is an unbelievable visual treat for the eyes. Things happen in a blink of an eye as if it were magic. I came in skeptical of the use of digital set design for a show that is set in 1945, but in this case it absolutely works. Sketches come alive and fill out moving set pieces with such dimension that you are transported onto the streets of Paris. The colors move from grey outlines to full pantone colors in a way that fills the theater with richness. Projections move in the background and shadows hit the backdrop adding to this vast landscape that Crowley imagined. From the sets come the scene transitions. Flawlessly executed with dancers grabbing various furnitures and moving them off stage in the most elegant way. The fluidity of each scene transition is a work of art in itself.
As Lise, Sara Esty is enchanting. Her magic power of making men fall in love instantly also extends over the audience. Esty portrays Lise as a classic beauty inside and outside. She fights injustice and has an air of optimism that follows her despite challenging situations. Esty is a beautiful dancer, whose expressionism only grows as she takes on romantic pas de deux scenes. All my misguided notions that real dancers can't sing were thrown away as soon as Esty began the first few notes of "The Man I Love." Some dancers can sing and sing really well.
Opposite Esty was Garen Scribner as Jerry Mulligan, the impetuous loud-mouth American who sweeps the young lady off her feet (literally). Scribner is dashingly different than Lise's obligatory lover Henri, played by Nick Spangler. At the different interaction points between Lise and a male character we see the chemistry Esty has with her counterparts. She maintains this innocence that is alluring, yet troublesome. There is so much more to her character than a pretty dancer.
It is interesting to see strong male dancers also sing and act. Scribner is a true triple threat. His suave personality fits the bill of American men in the late 1940s. Mulligan as a character is two-dimensional at best. He doesn't go through the vast character transformation as his peers, but Scribner owns it for what it is - a man in love. The American Mulligan is the opposite of the very French Henri Baurel. If Mulligan is the colorful one who disobeys customs; then Henri is the traditionalist and proper one. It isn't until the show stopping number, "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" in Act II that we see Henri's true form.
I adore Emily Ferranti as the nouveau riche Milo Davenport. Her character contrasts with Lise as an independent woman who isn't afraid to go after what she wants. Milo is not held back by society's rules. After seeing the show, "Shall We Dance?" has a whole new meaning. In fact, many of the Gershwin songs in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS were interpreted in a way much different than in my head or as seen in other shows that use their music. It is refreshing to hear the songs performed in this way, in this context.
Ferranti as Davenport is Hollywood glamorous with an air of sophistication. On the opposite spectrum Etai Benson, as Adam Hochberg, is the poor struggling composer of the show. He's the realist and the friend we all need. Adam's character goes through tremendous transformation from beginning to end. It is easy to watch Benson make the connection between his music and the events of his life.
The consistent theme throughout the show are art, love, and optimism. It all comes together during the dance segment "An American in Paris." I have never heard the audience so quiet at the Dr. Phillips Center. From the scenery and the lighting to the choreography combined with the recognizable instrumental theme, I surmised that the audience was mesmerized. Even those who do not regularly watch dance will find this piece easier to swallow, again, due to the music and the theatrical elements.
It's a fresh take on a classically rooted piece that is beautifully done. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS runs December 13 - December 18. For tickets and more information visit DrPhillipsCenter.org.
Photo credits: Header photo: Sara Esty and Garen Scribner in An American in Paris. Photo by Matthew Murphy. Body photo: Nick Spangler, Garen Scribner and Etai Benson in An American in Paris. Photo by Matthew Murphy.