Review: ‘An American in Paris’ at the Hippodrome Theatre

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Think of the latest “new” Gershwin touring show up at the Hippodrome Theatre — An American in Paris — as a G.I. “jukebox musical” with legs. About a hundred of them, it seems. And, boy oh boy, have they got rhythm! This is a slightly revamped touring version of what we saw in New York in 2015. And fans of the Oscar-winning 1951 MGM musical will note some deviations in plot and song settings. But lovers of musical romance and dance who catch the show in Baltimore aren’t likely to feel cheated in the least.

An American in Paris Touring Company. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The book by Craig Lucas (“inspired” by the film) and all the Tony-winning projection effects designed by Bob Crowley and achieved by 59 Productions, work in harmony to deliver an almost hallucinogenic experience to audiences. Watching those blurring backdrops of narrow Parisian streets materialize out of nowhere and become sidewalk cafes and open parks and vaulted train stations is nothing less than mesmerizing.

An American in Paris raises the bar on what it is possible to envision on stage. And what’s more, all that morphing and spinning through charcoal sketches and impressionistic shapes and blazing cartoon colors helps advance the narrative more often than not.

The drama is presented as a memory play told by a wounded pianist named Adam, and centers on his struggle to compose his magnum opus in Paris after the war. Through his eyes we meet soldier-turned-artist Jerry Mulligan and an aspiring French cabaret crooner named Henri. All three friends are fixated romantically on a spritely shop girl named Lise, who is in training to become a ballerina. The playful romantic rivalry unfolds within reminders of World War II and the deprivations of French occupation.

The historical context was unnecessary when the movie was produced just a handful of years after the war. And it does distract from the fun here at first. What are Nazi flags and the flogging of collaborationists doing in a Gershwin musical? But the treatment is consistent and manages to give added shading to a pretty sketchy cast of characters.

An American in Paris Touring Company. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The sheer, unending depth of talent on stage at the Hippodrome brings its own level of astonishment to Baltimore. On opening night we saw the alternate male lead, Kyle Robinson, step into the Jerry Mulligan role to deliver a head-spinning performance with a ballet master’s strength, grace, and focus. His pas de deux in the final ballet sequence was flawless and thrilling, and the twinkle he adds to his showcase numbers like “Fidgety Feet” and “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” was charged with leading-man magic.

Returning to her Broadway role as Lise, Allison Walsh gives an equally multi-faceted performance. She appears almost nonstop in that ballet climax, strutting and insinuating her pixieish frame through a gamut of spins and lifts. This was after she delivered a vocal solo of “The Man I Love” that must rank among the best female torch songs heard on any stage this season.

Also reprising his Broadway role as Adam is Matthew Scott, making the most of a wryly comic but subtly tragic figure.  Ben Michael as Henri gives a very different spin to the eye-popping “Stairway to Paradise” number, gathering pathos in his role as a crooner with more than one secret in his closet.

The powerhouse singer in this touring cast, though, is Kirsten Scott as Milo, the seasoned American philanthropist who wants to be more than Jerry’s art patron. Kirsten Scott knocks the leather wrapping off two veteran Gershwin hardballs, “Who Cares?” and ”But Not For Me,” before dragging the ensemble away to the dance floor with “Shall We Dance?”

Director and Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon won the 2015 Tony Award and several other major awards for his achievements in this musical show. All the explanation needed is currently up on stage at the Hippodrome — and as the songwriter put it, “Who could ask for anything more?”

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

An American in Paris plays through May 6, 2018, at the Hippodrome Theatre – 2 N. Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD.  For tickets, call 800-982-ARTS, or purchase them online.

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John Harding
Born and raised in Los Angeles, John Harding is an award-winning writer and editor. His features and reviews on film and theater have been published in the Washington Post and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Since 1982 he has covered D.C. and Maryland theater for Patuxent Publishing, and was arts editor for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He hosted a long-running cable-TV cultural affairs program and served numerous terms as chair of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Also known for his fiction as John W. Harding, his newest novel is “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 'Hollywood Games.'” It grew out of his lifelong love of early Hollywood lore. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets.