BWW Review: Kennedy Center's AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is a Swanky Affair
Washington is awash in holiday parties this month; however you'd be remiss to skip the celebration of life, dance, art, and Gershwin that is the swanky touring production of An American in Paris. Unlike its sibling Gershwin musical Crazy for You playing across the river at Signature Theatre, An American in Paris is not a giddy, romantically formulaic evening. Instead, what greets audiences in the Kennedy Center Opera House is a refined, poignant and mature musical about how the arts and artists help Paris reclaim its identity after the years, and horrors, of Nazi occupation. And while An American in Paris is filled with standard musical conflicts - romantic complications, searches for one's meaning, and family expectations versus personal ambitions - the show's overall focus is the role of art in society told thru the story of three friends and the girl they love.
What gives An American in Paris its refinement is the George and Ira Gershwin score combined with Christopher Wheeldon's stylized choreography and direction. Both are brought to life courtesy of 59 Productions' imaginative projections, and Bob Crowley's lavish costume and set designs. Yes, our favorite Gershwin tunes are sung. But when was the last time you truly enjoyed their compositions "Concerto in F" or "An American in Paris"? And when was the last time you heard it beautifully performed courtesy of a 15 piece orchestra and Conductor David Andrew Rogers? Indeed both pieces linger over the show hinting at the joy and rhapsody that ultimately unfolds.
Inspired by the 1951 Oscar Winner for Best Picture of the same name, the musical is set in Paris immediately following the end of the Second World War. American ex-pats Adam and Jerry, horrified by what they saw in the war and possessing artistic ambitions, decide to remain in France. They're joined by native Parisian Henri who struggles with his family's upper-class expectations and his dreams of pursuing song-and-dance stardom. Complicating matters is that the trio of friends are unknowingly in love with the same girl, ballerina Lise Dassin.
If the movie version hovers over this production at all, it is with the character of Jerry Mulligan. Legendary triple threat Gene Kelly played the aspiring artist in the film and was even recognized by the Academy Awards for his talent. While comparisons aren't fair, because who can ever compare with Kelly, they will happen when you adapt a beloved movie to the stage. Seriously, how many times have you heard "he's no Yule Brynner" watching the King & I?
McGee Maddox fills Kelly's dance shoes in this production with a serviceable performance as Jerry Mulligan. He is handsome and charming; however his singing voice is weak. With solos like "Liza" and "Beginner's Luck" Maddox appears to struggle, while with "They Can't Take That Away From Me" he is overpowered by co-stars Matthew Scott and Ben Michael. Happily though his dancing ability and talent are far superior and so is his chemistry with Allison Walsh's Lise Dassin.
Walsh's character is where we most see the war's lingering effect. Her Dassin is wonderfully reserved and thoughtful, with dance serving as her emotional outlet. Like Maddox, Walsh isn't the strongest vocally, but she possesses perfect timing and chemistry with her trio of suitors. We can't help but admire the selflessness with which Lise often seems to give of herself. There is a very real reason for her action and one which gives the play a tremendous gravitas. Walsh does not overplay the revelation making you fall even harder for Lise and the character's maturity.
One improvement over the movie version is that this An American in Paris has a solid stable of supporting characters led by Kirsten Scott's Milo Davenport. A rich American with a penchant for endowing the arts, Scott's Davenport sparkles in every scene thanks to her dryer-than-a-martini sense of humor and lavish costumes, courtesy of Bob Crowley. And while Walsh may not fill the leading lady role vocally, Scott is allowed to step into that space and does so with seductive versions of "Shall We Dance?" and my favorite, "But Not For Me."
Matthew Scott's Adam serves as the musical's narrator. A George Gershwin-esq character, Adam was wounded in the war and walks with a permanent limp. Rather than head home, and feeling ashamed about his injury, he stays in Paris to pursue his dreams of being a composer. Scott easily wins over the audience with his wit, passion, musical ability and desire to be seen as more than a wounded veteran.
Completing the trio of friends is Ben Michel's Henri. A member of the Parisian upper class, Henri instantly connects with Jerry and Adam and is often the optimist among the three. Adding to his complexity are two internal struggles, his war record and sexuality. The latter of which is only hinted at, but it is this constant question of how to address his role in the occupation that is a recurring theme among the Parisian characters.
Henri's mother, Madame Burel, played by a lovable and aristocratic Teri Hansen, also wrestles with this as well. In both Madame Burel and Lise, it leads to a self-imposed repression. All want to celebrate being free, but cannot comprehend how to acknowledge and make sense of such a dark time. And if Paris is to move beyond memories of Nazi occupation, how do artists reflect that?
Having An American in Paris at the Kennedy Center seems especially appropriate given the times we live in. Questions over the role of art and artists in society, who should fund them and whether art is there to entertain and/or advocate still linger over us, seven decades after the liberation of Paris. However, there is something else to be appreciated about this show and that is to see adult-themes being dealt with. It is wonderful not to see the Gershwin's catalog used for another mind-numbing, formulaic comedy (see Nice Work If You Can Get It or My One and Only) and for their compositions to be celebrated in the way that An American in Paris does.
So yes, as you party hop this holiday season, be sure not to skip An American in Paris at the Kennedy Center. Why? Because it 'S Wonderful, S Marvelous' and who can ask for anything more.
Runtime is two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
An American in Paris runs thru January 7th at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets please call (202) 467-4600 or click here.