If you “love a Gershwin tune” (and who doesn’t?), An American in Paris, presented by Broadway Philadelphia for a limited run this Thanksgiving week at the Academy of Music, is the show for you! Based on the Oscar-winning 1951 film, with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, a script by Alan Jay Lerner, and choreography by lead actor Gene Kelly, the current Broadway touring production of the 2015 Tony Award-winning musical is a feast for the eyes and ears, for which audiences can be thankful.
With an expanded book by Craig Lucas, and new choreography and direction by internationally-renowned master of ballet Christopher Wheeldon, the show is an enlarged and re-envisioned descendant of the MGM movie classic. While it retains the basic theme and plot points, the stage production switches up many of the beloved Gershwin tunes (some favorites like “Embraceable You,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and “Love Is Here to Stay” have, sadly, been cut), adds in some corny old-fashioned jokes and malapropisms, and gives some contemporary substance to the vintage characters and socio-political relevance to the post-war romance. And of course Wheeldon’s specialty results in a more balletic focus, with fewer tap numbers than in Kelly’s original dance sequences.
Set in Paris in 1945, here we see the lingering effects of World War II, as three aspiring-artist friends—two American, one French, and all three of whom, unbeknownst to one another, have fallen for the same Parisian ballerina–espouse the restorative values of art and love to return the City of Lights to its former glory and joie-de-vivre. Despite the many revisions to Lerner’s tenuous narrative (including the appearance of Frenchman Henri’s parents and an amplified nod to the local Nazi resistance), the contrived (and often convoluted) plot still serves largely as a device to string together fabulous segments of song and dance.
In the lead roles, Garen Scribner (as the US expatriate soldier-turned-painter Jerry Mulligan) and Sara Esty (as the dancer and object of his affection Lise Dassin) deliver not only the consummate grace and agility of their professional ballet backgrounds, but also turn in irresistible characterizations and fine vocals. Their beautifully rendered dance-fantasy of “An American in Paris”–the eponymous 1928 orchestral composition by George Gershwin that inspired the film—is a stunning climax to the story, with a surprise reversal, a fluid synthesis of the classic and jazz-ballet styles, and flawlessly synchronized movements with each other and the ensemble. Esty’s long en pointe passages and Scribner’s sequence of jetés and pirouettes around her are both delightful and astonishing.
The supporting cast is equally engaging. Featuring Etai Benson as American musician/composer Adam Hochberg and Nick Spangler as the wealthy French wannabe singer Henri Baurel, the friends and romantic rivals of Scribner’s Mulligan join him to light up the stage with exuberant trios of “I Got Rhythm” and “’S Wonderful” and the inserted Gershwin number “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” (which, like Lise’s “The Man I Love” and Jerry’s “Fidgety Feet,” was not a part of the film). Henri’s Radio City-style chorus-line, tap, and soft-shoe fantasy of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” (performed with Adam and the ensemble) is another highlight of the show, as Spangler’s character imagines overcoming his nerves and stage-fright to become a self-possessed star in New York.
Emily Ferranti as Milo Davenport (a rich American socialite with an ulterior motive for sponsoring Jerry’s artistic endeavors), and Gayton Scott and Don Noble as Henri’s affluent parents, capture their upper-class attitudes and inner motivations. Save for some unconvincing French and Russian accents throughout, the whole cast, dressed in lavish period-style role-defining costumes by Bob Crowley, is terrific.
Crowley also provided the set design, with a palette–supported by Natasha Katz’s lighting–that evinces the shift from the dreary greyness of the aftermath of war to the bright re-emergence of Paris through its lively arts scene. Supplementing Crowley’s movable flats and scenic elements (too often reconfigured at dizzying speeds) are 3-D digital projections by 59 Productions, of famous sites throughout the city, such as the Arc de Triomphe and the Seine. While they serve to set the locales, they are a post-modern anachronism to the era of the ‘40s, which also tend to distract from the spectacular song and dance routines. The most successful of the scenic and video designs are those based in the colorful abstract art of the period, which come as a welcome relief to the sometimes overly busy visuals.
Though the touring Broadway stage production of An American in Paris is not a slavish imitation of the popular mid-century film, it, too, is filled to the brim with memorable music, nimble and elegant dance, and spirited performances. It’s a great launch to the holiday season, so catch it while you can during its brief stay in Philadelphia!
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.