REVIEW: ‘An American in Paris” is Sublime Artistry in Motion at Peace Center

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The cast of "An American in Paris." Photo by Matthew Murphy.
The cast of “An American in Paris.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

When an American soldier, enchanted by the City of Lights and a beautiful brunette ballerina, decides to pursue a career as an artist, the stage is set, literally, for the epic love story – and ton of lavish dancing – in “An American in Paris,” a stunning display of movement and a visual feast of technical artistry that brings the Champs-Élysées to the Peace Center through Sunday, December 4.

This multiple Tony-winning musical directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon was inspired by the 1951 Vincente Minnelli film with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron (who is still alive and working today), which was itself inspired by George Gershwin’s 1928 jazz work “An American in Paris.”

“An American in Paris” is on its first national tour after a Paris opening in 2014 at the Théâtre du Châtelet and a robust Broadway run that closed in October and earned 12 Tony nominations with wins for Wheeldon’s choreography, Natasha Katz’s lighting, orchestrations by Christopher Austin, Don Sebesky, and Bill Elliot, and scenic design by Bob Crowley with projections by 59 Productions)

The book by Craig Lucas made a few changes to the screen narrative and has a darker tone than the film.  It begins in 1945 just after the liberation of Paris, when the war wounds are still festering, and its impoverished citizens are trying to normalize their lives after the occupation. \

Bright-eyed Jerry Mulligan (Garen Scribner) spots Lise Dassin (played by Sara Etsy) on the streets of Paris and is immediately smitten. But it is not until much later that he learns his fellow expatriate Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson), a struggling composer/pianist, and the wealthy Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler) who longs to be a singer, are also enamored with Lise.

Meanwhile, Jerry attracts the eye of an American benefactor Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti), who has as much interest in his art as his physique.

And Lise feels indebted to marry Henri who protected the dancer from the Nazis. Henri secretly pursues a singing career, much to the chagrin of his parents Monsieur (Don Noble) and Madame Baurel (played by the impeccable Gayton Scott) who believe in supporting the arts but not becoming artists.

Scribner, as dashing as a younger Hugh Jackman, and Etsy have been with “An American in Paris” since the show’s launch in Paris as stand-bys for the leads, after they were both plucked from ballet companies, just as Caron was discovered.

Only three George and Ira Gershwin songs from the film remain: “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” “I Got Rhythm” and “S Wonderful,”, which the male trio of friends does marvelously. But Wheeldon has added a slew of the brothers’ compositions such as “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” (a delightful number with umbrellas in the department store where Lise works) and some rarities such as “Fidgety Feet,” and “Shall We Dance?.”

But the core instrumentals, “Concerto in F” and the titular score for the ballet within the play, are intact and in fine, glorious form. I did not time the ballet in this musical, but in the film it was 17 minutes.

Wheeldon (with dance arrangements by Sam Davis) mixes dance styles and genres (ballet, jazz, tap and more) to Gershwin’s jazz-infused score. His dance sequences tell the story just as much as the dialogue does, and to gorgeous, mesmerizing effect.

And Crowley’s scenery moves in delicate ballet motions, as ensemble members seamlessly dance about with their partner set pieces.

Crowley’s scenery is clever and refined and makes the city of Paris a character all its own, combining skewed angles, three-dimensional objects  like the boats floating in the river Seine scenes, with 59 Productions’ animated renderings that sometimes appear as if they were ripped right from Jerry’s sketch pad. The result is a truly a visual, visceral feast as much as it is a musical one.

Crowley eschewed the Impressionist theme from the film  and “updated” it with the cubism of Picasso (with shades on Mondrian), and art Deco elements, such as  the Chrysler Building for the New York sequence.

He also designed the costumes that were originally sourced and made in Paris lavishly exude 1940s glamour at its finest.

Do you have a question for the dapper leading man? This Friday at 2:30 p.m. Garen Scribner will be hosting a Facebook Live Q&A on his Facebook page http://fb.com/garenscribner.

“An American in Paris” continues Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 6:30 p.m. with matinees Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Peace Center, 300 South Main St. in Greenville. Box Office: (864) 467-3000 or www.peacecenter.org.

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