If you're a big fan of the Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron movie An American in Paris, you should know that this stage version is quite a bit different. That is good news in some ways, since there are more Gershwin songs to enjoy in this rendition. But there are also some wrinkles that never quite get sorted out.
To begin with, this touring production now at Playhouse Square is set a few years earlier than the 1951 flick — in 1945 — so the overtones of anxiety and horror caused by the Nazi occupation of France are ever-present. The book by Craig Lucas focuses on the same characters from the film: the American painter, Jerry Mulligan; his pal, the struggling composer Adam Hochberg; and Frenchie Henri Baurel, a wannabe song-and-dance man.
In this telling, they're all fresh from the war, their lives torn apart in myriad ways; Adam has a leg injury that is still painful. Lucas tries to weave into this the romantic yarn about three guys who are all in love, in one way or another, with the beauteous dancer Lise Dassin.
But since the upbeat and optimistic songs by George and Ira Gershwin were written in the years before the war (since George died young in 1937), they don't carry the undertones of tragedy that the book wants to explore. Indeed, many of the songs reflect an upbeat view of life unaffected by the world war. That worked fine for the movie, which was set in the comparatively balmy 1950s. But here, the tunes such as "S'Wonderful" and "Fidgety Feet" are an odd match to a Paris where there were probably still shreds of swastika flags being swept out of the streets.
That disconnect aside, the lavish production on the State Theater stage is a marvel. And the dancing, handled by ballet professionals and designed by the renowned contemporary ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who doubles as director, are spectacular. It is rare when a Broadway show leaves such room and space for accomplished dancers to ply their wares. And this company of performers does not disappoint on that score.
It begins with a ballet sequence to "Concerto in F," as we are introduced to the main characters without the aid of words, spoken or sung. And a glorious introduction it is, since we begin to absorb the painterly scenic design crafted by Bob Crowley, who also designed the costumes. Aided by Natasha Katz' lush lighting design and projections (by 59 Productions) that are layered one upon the other, both on moving and stationary screens, the visual palette is an absolute joy that moves as elegantly as the company of dancers.
As we get to know the trio of men who are vying for the attention of Lise, we are treated to dance numbers that vary in their storytelling ability. But they are consistent in their quality, as the dancers swoop, glide and go airborne for seemingly long periods of time. It is thoroughly involving and an often engrossing vehicle to tell the story.
In the lead roles of Lise and Jerry, Sara Esty and McGee Maddox are exceptional dancers. And they handle their singing duties professionally, even though each was trained in ballet. But they never quite ignite the kind of chemistry that one would desire. In particular, the handsome and upright Maddox often comes across as a bit wooden — especially when you compare him to the bundle of barely repressed urges that Gene Kelly conveyed in the same role. Kelly was a dancing orgasm in loafers while Maddox is strong, restrained and a bit of a bore.
As Adam, Etai Benson conveys the schlubby persona of this character well enough, but he could be a lot more interesting. Again, one yearns for the acidic presence of Oscar Levant, who essayed this role in the film and who is referenced, somewhat wistfully, by Adam. The most interesting character among the three dudes is Henri, since his sexual orientation, let alone his prospects as an entertainer, are hard to fathom. But a crisp and eager Nick Spangler makes Henri a breath of fresh air throughout the proceedings.
After the opening number, there are 16 more Gershwin songs and only four of them were in the movie. So if you love you some Gershwin, you've come to the right place. And the long, 15-minute title ballet, which punctuates the second act, is a triumph of balletic inspiration and execution.
This American lacks truly compelling characters, and the story is sacrificed at times to the glory of dance — it's easily more than half ballet alone. But this production is flat-out sublime visually, and not to be missed for that reason alone.