Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
When: through Aug. 13
By ANNE SPISELMAN
“An American in Paris” is a rare exception to the litany of disappointing stage musicals based on iconic films. While the show pays homage to the 1951 movie showcasing the music and songs of George and Ira Gershwin and starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, it improves on the original in many ways.
Celebrated choreographer and first-time director Christopher Wheeldon—who also choreographed the splendid world premiere of the Joffrey Ballet’s new “Nutcracker” last winter—has created an enchanting and at times moving vision of Paris’ revitalization after World War II, replete with widely varied routines that bring songs like “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck,” “The Man I Love,” and I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” vividly to life. His dances for the orchestral pieces are wonders of storytelling, starting with a rather dark portrait of the City of Light in the immediate wake of the war to “Concerto in F” and ending with the glorious title ballet with a modernist Mondrian-like design and a stunning fantasy pas de deux for the leading characters.
Those characters are, of course, Jerry Mulligan, the soldier who decides to stay in Paris after the war and try his hand at being an artist, and Lise Dassin, the mysterious young woman with whom he falls in love. Here they’re played by ballet dancers McGee Maddox, a principal with the National Ballet of Canada, and Sara Esty, a former soloist with the Miami City Ballet and Lise alternate on Broadway. (Her sister Leigh-Ann Esty is the alternate for some performances in Chicago, and Ryan Steele subs for Maddox.) The tall, agile Maddox and petite, delicate Esty (whose bob is reminiscent of Caron’s) dance beautifully together and have good chemistry, which is essential. They’re also convincing actors and better-than-average singers; her rendition of “The Man I Love” is especially lovely.
In place of the film’s loose plot, playwright Craig Lucas has written a book in which everything is connected and fits together, even if some of the twists are very contrived. The action has been moved back to 1945 (though some of the costumes are more early 1950s), and Jerry first sees Lise in the opening ballet giving part of her bread ration to a down-and-out stranger. Then at a cafe he meets Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson), our narrator/composer and wounded Jewish-American veteran who works as piano accompanist for Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler), a textile factory heir who secretly wants to be a nightclub song-and-dance man. The men, who bond as “the three musketeers,” have a trio of trios together: “I’ve Got Rhythm” (with the whole company) in which Henri delightfully jazzes up Adam’s dirge-like tempo, “ ‘S Wonderful,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
Adam also is an accompanist for a ballet company, and when he invites Jerry to accompany him to sketch the dancers, they encounter Lise, who is the daughter of a famous ballerina and wows everyone with her audition. Also present are Henri’s mother, the uptight Madame Baurel (Gayton Scott) and her guest Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti), an American art lover and patroness who’s so taken with the artists that she decides to fund a short ballet specifically written for Lise by Adam and designed by Jerry, who has aroused her romantic attention.
All three men fall in love with Lise, and though her feelings for Jerry develop quickly—in “Liza,” he convinces her to meet him afternoons at the Seine—she becomes engaged to Henri out of a sense of duty, even though there are implications he may be gay. The mystery is why she feels beholden to his bourgeois parents, Madame and Monsieur Baurel (Don Noble).
The war-related reason eventually comes out, as does the cause of Madame’s wariness. Along the way, Lucas includes a few far-fetched coincidences. The reception at which Henri’s engagement to Lise is announced seems to exist mostly to work in the number “Fidgety Feet,” which doesn’t really belong, and why the jazz club to which Jerry suggests Milo take the Baurels happens to be the one where Henri is trying out his act stretches belief. At the same time, the creation of the new ballet is a plausible through line, and the theme of how artists should follow their hearts and use their art to bring joy to the world fits the overall Paris-awakening story.
While the entire cast is topnotch, the standouts besides Maddox and Esty are Spangler’s Henri, who has a marvelous voice and captures the tone of the period in every way, and Benson, who gets Adam’s dry sense of humor down pat and has a chance to show off his tap dancing in the big “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” number with its showgirls in sequins and feathers and sly tribute to “A Chorus Line.”
That showstopper, in which a small nightclub morphs into a fantasy of Radio City Music Hall (lots of the numbers have fantasy elements), is just one of the many triumphs of the award-winning design,” which uses projections and painting with light in imaginative ways to conjure everything from monumental buildings to ripples on the Seine. It also allows for the smooth, speedy transition among scenes that can switch from the Galeries Lafayette (where Lise works at the perfume counter until Jerry disrupts the whole place) to the dance studio to our heros’ apartments (all three at once) in an instant. Credit goes to set and costume designer Bob Crowley, lighting designer Natasha Katz, and 59 Productions, which designed the ever-changing projections.
Last but definitely not least, the music sounds much better than it often does for touring productions, thanks to the first-rate orchestra under music director/conductor David Andrews Rogers and the sound design by Jon Weston, as well as the fine work of Rob Fisher, who adapted, arranged, and supervised the score.