2015 Tony-winning musical at Overture is so much more than 1951 film classic
No one had to twist my arm to get me to clear my schedule to attend the opening night of An American in Paris, the latest installment in the Broadway at Overture series. Pile on the Gershwin hits, give me that old-fashioned love triangle plot (or is it a quadrangle?), throw in Paris right after World War II, and it promised to be a pleasant evening at the very least. But with the marketing adding “A New Musical” below the title, and the show’s obvious debt to the 1951 Gene Kelly film classic, I wondered: How new can this be?
Answer: Dazzlingly new, visually stunning, overflowing with even more Gershwin music than in the movie, and a level and type of stagecraft I simply have not experienced at this level.
To reset the plot basics, ex-GI Jerry Mulligan, an aspiring artist, decides to stay in Paris instead of returning stateside. He ends up torn between the considerable career advancement offered by patron Milo Davenport and true love in the person of the winsome French lass, Lise Dassin. His sidekick is composer (and acerbic cynic) Adam Hochberg, and he is in competition with Henri Baurel for Lise’s affections.
For starters, the new book by Craig Lucas adds a darker dimension to the foundation of the relationships between Henri (and his parents) and Lise, one which is rooted in the consequences of the war. But long before that secret is revealed, one is keenly aware that this is a more three-dimensional rom-com-drama, compared to the Gene Kelly-centric original.
There is practically a new character as well—and the closest we can come to naming it would be to say it is Paris itself. This is achieved by the remarkable projections on the back of the stage by 59 Productions. With breathtaking speed, drawing/painting/illuminations of buildings, the Seine, the skyline, et al seem to drop from the sky or swoop in from stage left and right. Frequently added to incredibly precise, high-energy set and prop moves, one easily feels truly swept up in the action.
The show has been described as “dance heavy,” not in any pejorative sense, but simply in the sheer volume of movement. Throughout Act I it seems that no sooner does someone start singing than a dance breaks out. For that matter, dance movement of some sort is part and parcel of much of the stage movement throughout, and director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon cannot be given enough credit for the manner in which he deepens the characters and their relationships through dance.
The cast is superb, from the leads down to the indefatigable ensemble dancers. McGee Maddox is Jerry Mulligan, and he exudes great chemistry with the Lise of Allison Walsh. Matthew Scott as Hochberg is smart to eschew an obvious resurrection of the snarky Oscar Levant. Kirsten Scott is Milo Davenport, and Ben Michael is Henri Baurel, the son of aristocrats who secretly tries to build a nightclub career that will take him to Radio City Music Hall.
For those who are first and foremost Gershwin fans, you can quote Ira: “Who could ask for anything more?” In addition to the obvious hit tunes featured in the film, we are treated to swatches of Concerto in F and Second Prelude, Cuban Overture, among others. A major and delightful surprise was “Fidgety Feet” (photo above, courtesy of Matthew Murphy). This was a hilarious sequence near the start of Act II, a great send-up of stuffy, elitist types.
Yes, there’s the titular ballet sequence near the end, but set up and executed in a manner entirely different from Kelly’s vision. Again, a great choice; this is a place where the wheel needed to be reinvented. Lise is the star, and other plot elements are brought together neatly (Jerry has designed the set/backdrops, e.g.). David Andrews Rogers leads about a baker’s dozen of versatile pit players, and we must acknowledge the great solo by first trumpeter Sam Oatts in that unforgettable yearning theme from the title ballet. As Wynton Marsalis has said, he “gets the juice out” of every note.
Whether you’re a fan of the film or not, this “new musical” is sure to warm your heart, get your feet tapping, and probably have you humming on the way back home. You can see it every night through Sunday, with matinees as well on Saturday and Sunday.