Thursday, September 14, 2017

"An American in Paris"

An American in Paris
George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin (Music and Lyrics); Craig Lucas (Book)

Taking a 1951 film starring the dancing likes of Gene Kelly and Leslie Carron – a film that is idolized by members of a certain generation and one hardly if at all known by those known as Millennials – and turning that film decades later into a stage musical is nothing short of risky and daring, if not downright foolhardy.  But the 2015 transition of An American in Paris from screen to stage was nothing short of a spectacular success, wooing and wowing first Paris and then New York and accumulating multiple awards along the way.  And how could it not with the songs of the brothers Gershwin (George and Ira) – perennial favorites like “I Got Rhythm,
“’S Wonderful,” and “The Man I Love” – peppering a storyline set in post-war Paris and rich in the intrigues of three pals all in love with the same beautiful girl?  Craig Lucas’s book pays proper homage to the film but ventures into enough new avenues to make the familiar-to-many story a novel journey for all.  But book, music, and lyrics are only part of the touring version’s magic and wonder now on stage at the SHN Orpheum.  This is a musical where dance – specifically ballet -- is the key narrator of the story; and the dance is gloriously performed not only by the talented cast but also by the floating and flying scenery, props, lighting, and projections.  The result is an eye-popping, heart-pounding, and
head-swimming success!

McGee Maddox & Sara Esty
Paris, 1945, very much plays a starring role in the musical.  The City of Lights that is in the aftermath of Nazi occupation is introduced to us by a no-dialogue opening sequence of dance and movement scenes depicting departing GI’s saying their good-byes to French girlfriends, starving Parisians standing in breadlines, and citizens taking their revenge on former Nazi sympathizers.  We are soon introduced to one street roamer among the many, Jerry, a GI who tears up his ticket home in order to stay and pursue both his art career and a beautiful but elusive girl with whom he has inadvertently locked eyes on the streets of Paris.  Also seeing that same girl and immediately falling for her is Adam, a piano-playing GI who hopes to leave his plunking-the-keys job in a café to write songs the world will sing.  In that café, both of these guys meet each other and connect with a third young man, a French-born Henri who is aristocratic by birth but aspiring to be a nightclub song-and-dance man (something his rich parents would abhor).  Henri is also trying to gain courage to propose to a gal whom his family has hid during the war.  Unbeknownst to any of the three new pals, Lise is the young, aspiring ballerina for whom all three are now pining and pursuing.

The triangular tale of romance becomes more complicated with the introduction of Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti), a well-meaning but rather forceful wealthy American woman ready to put her money into reviving Parisian ballet.  By chance she hears Adam play the piano, sees some sketches of Jerry, and discerns the undiscovered talent of Lise; and as can only happen in a musical, she quickly picks Adam as composer, Jerry as designer, and Lise as star of her newly commissioned ballet.  With Henri on the side watching it all and stumbling into an engagement of marriage with Lise (“She accepted a proposal I didn’t have to make”), the stage is set for many ups and downs, ins and outs before final resolution – especially when we add that both Lise and Milo find themselves falling in love with Jerry.

Nick Spangler, Stephen Brower & McGee Maddox
“The Three Musketeers,” as the new comrades quickly call themselves, get their friendship off to a rousing start with a an electrifying “I Got Rhythm,” where Nick Spangler as Henri particularly shines with his brilliantly trumpeting tenor vocals, a voice that will reign forth time and again throughout the evening.  Café patrons, waiters and bartenders, and sidewalk passers-by soon join in a stage-filling number of feet kicking in rapid succession, bodies gyrating and pulsing in movements fast and furious, and couples dipping and lifting each other – only one of the evening’s many fantastically performed numbers designed by Tony-winning choreographer (and also the musical’s director), Christopher Wheeldon. 

Nick Spangler & Cast
Later, a gleeful and flamboyant Jerry (McGee Maddox) will sing and dance with flair “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck,” accompanied by a bevy of umbrella-toting Parisians, the females of which will suddenly turn into a colorful bouquet of spring flowers as dancing couples float across the stage.  With nervous feet that cannot remain still, Jerry will begin a series of jazzy steps and taps in “Fidgety Feet” that will soon erupt into a stage full of bodies performing all sorts of feats with their feet while sitting, lying, and otherwise using in fantastical ways the straight-back chairs set out for them to watch a rather silly ballet, “The Eclipse of Uranus.”  And not to be outdone, Nick Spangler as Henri will use his big-stage voice when he sings “I’ll Build a Stairway to Heaven,” all the time fantasizing when he might someday be in New York in top hat and cane among a stage full of head-feathered, scantily clothed women and tux-wearing men, all tapping and dancing in kick-lines galore. 

As wonderful as these big production numbers are (all enhanced immensely by the stunning costumes of Bob Crowley), the unique beauty and wonder of An American in Paris comes largely from the ballets designed by Mr. Wheeldon.  Tapping, kicking, swinging, and swirling give way to the graceful and mesmerizing as well as triumphant and soaring movements of ballet artists on the stage.  Those who were in the last number filling the stage with a rousing number that would do any Broadway stage proud return quickly to perform a ballet that could easily grace the stages of the great dance companies of New York, Chicago, or San Francisco.  That the plot of the musical advances importantly through the story told in these ballet sequences as long as a quarter-to-third hour is a tribute to the inventiveness and daringness of the musical’s conceivers.

Sara Esty & McGee Maddox
The peak moment of many ballets is the pas de deux; and An American in Paris does not disappoint along those lines.  Sara Esty as Lise joins McGee Maddox (Jerry) in a climatic tour-de-force demonstration of the two performers’ core skills as professional ballet stars as they dance together in a number sharing the same title as the musical.  The emotion projected by their bodies in arrestingly beautiful motion and by their eyes in longingly locked gazes is intensely tangible.  While each brings voices that hold up quite well in their sung numbers, it is their abilities as dancers that in the end assure much audience appreciation to Ms. Esty and Mr. Maddox during the final standing ovation.

And as was mentioned earlier, the motion of dance is not limited to the humans on the stage.  Bob Crowley has created a set that zooms, flies, floats, and waltzes into place – with panels, banners, and properties of all sorts magically forming alleys and avenues, cafes and storefronts, the river Seine and the backstage of a grand hall.  The massive eighteenth-century buildings of Haussman fall into place from the heavens through the astonishing projections by 59 Projections – just one of dozens of jaw-dropping effects as the designed videography reminds us just how special and globally unique Paris really is.  Even the lighting of Natasha Katz finds ways to dance its way onto the stage, changing times of day and moods of scenes with a painter’s touch.  All is enveloped in a sound design by Jon Weston that brings the aural parts of Paris to life in ways we feel we are almost there.

Finally, Music Director and Conductor David Andrews Rogers renders with a magnificent orchestra George Gershwin’s score, providing a concert worthy of its own symphony hall.  The background played for the long ballet sequences are especially inspiring and intoxicating in their beauty.

Smiles were worn on every departing face of the audience on the opening night of the touring An American in Paris at SHN.  Those in couples were joining hands and/or locking arms as the musical’s romantic airs had their effects.  Those not with that someone special were perhaps looking around to see if by chance their Else or Jerry just might be somewhere in the crowded lobby.  After all, any thing can happen when it is the night of a musical as grand and glorious as this.

Rating: 5 E

An American in Paris continues through October 8, 2017 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Matthew Murphy

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