“An American in Paris,” the stage musical, is a continuation of the joie de vivre that the historic 1951 film, starring Gene Kelly, brought audiences following the morosity cast by the pall of World War II.
Since opening on Broadway in April 2015, and now in the midst of a national tour that is currently playing at the famous Hollywood Pantages Theatre through April 9th, the show serves as a graceful and impassioned expression of ebullience. It is a triumph of romanticism in the face of trials and opposition, and most of all, a reminder to live again for the pursuit of happiness, with the atrocities of the war left behind but not forgotten.
The Gershwin Brothers’ music (George and Ira) is as sweepingly sonorous as ever, helping make the waves for the performers on stage who are swan-like in their elegance, but always purposeful in their determined movements and intentions. Rob Fisher, who adapts and supervises the score, does a remarkable job of sustaining the essence, as well as the energetic ebbs and flows of the music, while bringing a modern sensibility to the proceedings. Moreover, the company 59 Projections, along with Natasha Katz (lighting design), and Bob Crowley (set & costume design) have created a stage presentation becoming of our technologically friendly era, co-opting and embracing a marriage between light projections and the set (and roving set pieces). With various bright hues and shadows appearing, disappearing, and transitioning, the viewer sees the passage of time occur at a mesmerizing rate.
Of course, director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon deserves a standing ovation of his own for a production that makes ballet, jazz steps, and even tap-dancing exciting for a brand-new generation. The incredible timing inherent in the maneuvers, each count of dance mattering explicitly, and not a single move wasted, is breathtaking to watch.
Playing the lead of Jerry Mulligan, who is a former WWII American soldier, and now expatriate in Paris with a talent for painting, is Garen Scribner. The young actor is known for having been a soloist with the San Francisco Ballet, yet Scribner is more than just a ballet star, who uncannily glides across the stage like a superhero, and nary a trickle of sweat to be seen, such as in the rousing “Fidgety Feet.” He is also a proficient singer, and an actor who can easily access the fire within himself in dramatic situations. Scribner’s scenes with Emily Ferranti (who portrays Milo Davenport) epitomize Mulligan’s distress, who is grateful for the philanthropy afforded to him to realize his dream, but also aware of his powerful love for Lise Dassin (Sara Esty). Needless to say, Scribner shines brightest with his leading co-star (Esty), creating an infallible stage chemistry that awes the heart as much as the eyes.
Sara Esty delivers a blissful performance as the endearingly sweet Lise Dassin (the role is shared with Sara’s twin sister Leigh-Ann Esty). She is remarkably compelling as the girl who initially resists Mulligan’s overtures, whether at the department store she works at, or on the bench overlooking the Seine. When Lise agrees to Mulligan’s proposal to be his painting muse in exchange for him helping her with her English, a powerfully romantic switch is flipped, which exudes out to the transfixed audience. Sara Esty also does a proficient job of believably communicating Lise’s doubt and lack of belief in herself – in either being able to fully commit to her fiancée Henri Baurel or pull off the big ballet production at the end – which makes the grand success of the final sequence so satisfying to witness.
Nick Spangler portrays the role of Henri Baurel, a closeted gay man who dreams of being a stage performer, with great versatility. Henri, who in the musical is identified as having been a leader of the resistance during the Nazi occupation, certainly loves Lise, which entailed protecting her, a Jew, from harm. Suffice it to say, this solemn reveal is not delved into in the film; nevertheless, it adds a few layers of necessary substance to this production that is predominantly on the lighter side — for which Spangler also deserves much acknowledgement. One example is the scene when his character is trying to write a fervent letter to Lise, to express his desire to marry her. However, as he crumples up each page, due to being unable to muster the requisite words, we feel Henri’s frustration, but we’re also impressed with Spangler’s on-stage patience to earn comedic recognition from the crowd. Not to mention, Spangler is the focal point of one of the musical’s most memorable moments when he goes from a bumbling performer to a superstar in the Radio City Music Hall daydream sequence of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.”
Etai Benson takes on the persona of Adam Hochberg with an intense, sometimes tragic, but sensibly sardonic relatability. Adam is an aspiring composer, and also an American expatriate in Paris, whose reminder of a bum leg from battle compels him to write melancholic music. But, after similarly falling in love with Lise, he discovers the truth – that it’s better use art to give people joy rather than heartache. Undoubtedly, Benson ultimately conveys his character’s epiphany with a naturalism that rings genuinely even when it results in a (funny) lapse of intended awkwardness, as in when he catches himself calling Lise a “prized pig.” Furthermore, when it becomes apparent that his character will not win over Lise, Benson is impressively emotive in “But Not for Me.”
Rounding out the main cast is Emily Ferranti as the American power player in Milo Davenport. Ferranti is an excellent singer with much verve (e.g., “Shall We Dance?”) and is very skilled in her role. The reason being is that she manages to balance the empowered, seductress qualities of her character with a woman, who, given all of her influence, wants to simply love and be loved. That said, when Milo does not get her wish, and is rebuffed by Mulligan, Ferranti’s facial expressions are on point, uncovering a vulnerability that deftly shines through with strength.
Essentially, “An American in Paris” is a musical that in many ways even surpasses the film it is based on. Featuring delightful and substantive performances across the stage – led by director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon – this production elaborates further on its characters’ motivations, successfully steadying the earnestness of the era with finesse and humor. One would be hard-pressed to find another show in recent memory that exemplifies as much artistic talent in so many disciplines at a given time.
For more information about purchasing tickets to see “An American in Paris” at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, please visit http://bit.ly/2mCwogh
For additional information about the ongoing tour of the musical, please visit anamericaninparisbroadway.com