“American in Paris” – National Tour at Bushnell Is Terrific

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Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Karen Isaacs

Go see the national tour production of An American in Paris now at the Bushnell through Sunday, Nov.  20. It has just about everything:  great music, a literate book, inventive sets, lighting, costumes, a cast that is terrific and direction and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon.

This touring production totally captures the look, feel and quality of the original Broadway production which I saw.  And where often the sound at the Bushnell is too loud making it difficult to understand lyrics, it is just perfect here.

As the cast sings at the end of the curtain calls, “Who could ask for anything more?”  I can’t.

The show is an adaptation of the famous 1951 film that starred Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant about an American who goes in Paris to become an artist, meets a cynical American (Levant) who is a pianist, and falls in love with a French girl (Caron). The music was Gershwin’s and the book was by Alan J. Lerner. The highlight of the film was the dance—including a ballet toward the end using Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”

Craig Lucas has reworked the book and I think improved it.  The show has been moved from the early ‘50s to just after the end of WWII. Our GI (Jerry Mulligan) misses the train that will take him home because he is sketching and pursuing a young woman he has only seen but is captivated by.  He winds up in a café where he meets a young American composter/pianist (Adam Hochberg) and a Frenchman (Henri Baurel) who wants to be a cabaret singer but is afraid to tell his rather straight laced, wealthy parents who expect him to take over the family fabric business. The guys soon  proclaim themselves “the three musketeers.”

The girl (Lise Dassin) is still a major part of the plot. She is a ballet dancer and somehow – we don’t know how for much of the show– she knows Henri’s parents who treat her as a daughter.  Henri is in love with her but lacks the courage to ask her to marry him. Through a connection between Henri’s mother and a wealthy youngish American woman (Milo Davenport) who wants to support the arts, Lise auditions for a prestigious dance company and is hired. Milo also ensures that Adam, who is the pianist for the company gets the opportunity to write a ballet and Jerry to design the sets.

We have three men — Henri, Jerry and Adam all smitten with the same girl –Lise– but not aware of each other’s interests. Did I mention that Lise just happens to be the girl Jerry was sketching when he missed the train?

You can easily figure out what can happen –including that Milo will takes more than a platonic interest in Jerry.  But Craig Lucas who wrote the book has added in some nice twists.

Dialogue is relatively minimal and much of the story is told through the dances choreographed by Wheeldon.  The opening, to Gershwin’s Concerto in F, sets the entire scene — from the arrival of the GIs, the liberation of Paris, the punishment of a young woman who had been involved with the Nazis, to Jerry’s sketching, seeing Lise and pursuing her, missing the train and deciding to stay in Paris.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Scenic designer Bob Crowley (who also did the costumes) has collaborated brilliantly with 59 Projections who has done projections. The result is a flexible the combination of the moving set pieces with projections create dazzling effects that set the scenes and add to our understanding of the story without distracting us.

In this production, I noticed some of set elements I had missed before: a reference to Van Gogh’s boats, the way the scenes cinematically evolve and the colors.

Natasha Katz’ s lighting designs are also excellent as is the sound design by Jon Weston.  A few quibbles about the costumes — not all reflect the late 40’s fashion with some of them more ’50s inspired and the French characters look much too well dressed for people who have gone through the deprivation of the war and occupation.  But this minor and it is, after all, a musical.

You cannot talk about the cast without also talking about Christopher Wheeldon who both directed and choreographed.  A former principal dancer with both the Royal Ballet and the New York City Ballet, he has been choreographing for years but this is an auspicious directing debut.  We can only hope he does not get side tracked to films or television but brings his immense talent to Broadway frequently.

Jerry Mulligan played by Garen Scribner who took over the role on Broadway. An international ballet soloist, his dancing his terrific.  He has charm, a very attractive voice and good acting skills. Since I saw the original Broadway cast, he is not quite as magnetic as Robert Fairchild who originated the role.  But, of course, it is his dancing that will take your breath away. Sara Esty who plays Lise is also primarily a ballet dancer but again her acting is fine and her voice adequate for the role which has many fewer vocal numbers than Scribner.  He is obviously the primary character; after all it IS the Gene Kelly role.

The supporting actors are very good even if they don’t quite live up to the original cast. Etai Benson plays Adam Hochberg against type.  There’s nothing of Oscar Levant in him; his cynicism seems more superficial. Nick Spangler has charm, a delightful voice and conveys Henri’s uncertainties and lack of confidence. Emily Ferranti plays Milo Davenport without turning her into a “dragon lady”.  She carries more of the singing than Cope — getting to do “Shall We Dance?”  “Who Cares?” and “But Not for Me.”  As Henri’s mother, Gayton Scott projects the nervousness of someone who has realized how dangerous the world is.

The entire company dances up a storm.  This is definitely a dance musical and it is really a ballet musical.

When you combine all the elements including Rob Fisher’s adaptations and arrangements, and the wonderful Gershwin music from the “Concerto in F” to the “Second Rhapsody” and “Cuban Overture” as well as the songs, and you then add in the terrific cast, choreography and direction — the result is a musical that you must see.

An American in Paris is at the Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Tickets are available through The Bushnell..

This review is an adaptation and revision of the original review posted in April 2015.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

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