Paradise Found: “An American in Paris”


The company of An American in Paris. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Christopher Wheeldon (director and choreographer) and Craig Lucas’ (book) adaptation of the classic movie musical An American in Paris begins with a single piano on stage backed by a drop that’s almost completely black, but you can make out the famous lines of the Arc de Triomphe. Gershwin’s “Concerto in F” begins, and the company of dancers, dressed in greys and blacks, enacts a sequence of lingering grief, continuing conflict, reunited lovers, and joyous homecomings. It’s 1945 and the City of Lights is coming back to life after years of darkness. Large abstract set pieces glide on and become part of the choreography, and with exquisite projection design (credited to “59 Productions”), the dancers move, leap, and soar through the damaged city.

The number establishes the show’s independence from the famous movie, set in 1951 and opening with sunny shots of the familiar sites of Paris. (The “Concerto” is also in the film, but used humorously and not as an opening number.)

We then find ourselves in a café, where an American ex-GI Adam Hochberg (Stephen Brower), a pianist and composer, is beginning rehearsal with Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler), who harbors secret dreams of starring in cabaret despite being the scion of a wealthy Parisian family who has different expectations for him. They are joined by Jerry (Ryan Steele), another ex-pat GI who’s stayed around in Paris to be an artist, and the three begin joking around to the strains of “I Got Rhythm,” other patrons joining in as the bar becomes more crowded. The lights go out, but the resourceful crowd starts the music back up. No one can stay down for long during “I Got Rhythm.”

The next day, Adam is playing for a ballet company’s auditions, Jerry shows up with some of his sketches, and a young dancer Lise (Sara Esty) arrives late, but inserts herself into the audition at Adam’s urging. Both Adam and Jerry (who has encountered her briefly previously) are smitten. A wealthy American woman, Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti) is taken with all three of them, and wants the company to produce a ballet using Adam’s music, Jerry’s designs, and starring Lise. Milo is especially attracted to Jerry, while Henri turns out to have a mysterious entanglement with Lise. With five possible young lovers, the math cannot work out, and we know that there will be heartbreak and sacrifice to come. But these are people who are familiar with both.

These opening scenes are miraculous. Wheeldon the director keeps almost everything in motion, even during the dialogue, and the set pieces are brought on and off the stage by the ensemble, who whirl and partner with the scenery. Every second, every detail is choreographed and planned, but it all unfolds with such ease and fluidity that it takes your breath away.


Jerry (Garen Scribner, no longer with the tour, is pictured here) causes a stir at Lise’s (Sarah Esty) place of work. (The role of Jerry now alternates between Ryan Steele and McGee Maddox. Esty alternates in the role of Lise with her sister, Leigh-Ann Esty.) (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

An American in Paris is a production with flaws, quite a few actually, most in the second act, and most as a result of Lucas’ book. Lucas’ writing can be over-explicit and in his attempt to deepen the material, he darkens it in a way the show can’t support. The major problem is the connection between Lise and the Baurels (Henri’s family), with whom she lives. The revelations of their war-time activities are over-complicated and come across as melodramatic—too fraught for the show and its music. Lesser problems include jokes about Henri’s sexuality that seem anachronistic and don’t go anywhere (the suggestion that he’s gay actually lessens the richness of his character), the interpolation of “Fidgety Feet” (from the Gershwin’s Oh, Kay) seems shoe-horned in and doesn’t match the tone of its surrounding scene (although the choreography is wonderful), and the leads’ singing ranges from the adequate to the good, never really approaching the spectacular. (However, they all display an immense respect for the music—there is no obnoxious ornamentation, no modern pop stylings. The music is sung as written, and the singers trust it will convey what is needed.) I think the creators also make a mistake with “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.” This is used as Henri’s nightclub debut, and he starts out nervous and off-key, but then it becomes a fantasy sequence with the ensemble in feathered headdresses and top hats tapping in front of stylized (and gorgeous) representations of the Chrysler building. But the way the number is set-up, we’re supposed to see Henri come into his own as a performer during the number. Because fantasy overtakes the production, we don’t see Henri learning to relate to his onstage audience, overcoming his jitters, and triumphing, which is clearly what the scene is supposed to be about.

Even though these missteps aren’t negligible, I have to admit that ultimately, I don’t really care about them. An American in Paris is bliss. You can’t believe Wheeldon, a former ballet dancer and internationally renowned ballet choreographer, hasn’t directed a musical before. His staging is masterful, his dance creations entrancing, and even the show’s scene changes are gorgeous. (Pieces are brought on and off by the ensemble with grace and fluidity.)

Despite the problems in the script, Lucas’s reconception of the film is bold and imaginative, and it does deepen the source material. There hasn’t been a musical in which dance is so primary in a long time (Hairspray being the last one I’ve seen, although I’ve heard it’s a central part of Bandstand and a few others), and you’d have to go back to the middle of last century to find a show where ballet is the primary dance form. Wheeldon defines his characters and settings through ballet, and the work of he and his cast is stunning. The characters become their best, most luminous selves when they dance, even as they retain their flawed humanity.

I adore the movie, but its most famous sequence, the “An American in Paris” ballet set to Gershwin’s 1928 composition, is also its biggest mistake. Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron cavort through a series of sets based on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters, but the 18-minute sequence has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It isn’t Jerry and Lise performing, it’s Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. Nothing is revealed, nothing is at stake, and the final effect is one of pretension.

In the musical, the ballet is the result of Milo’s commission, set to Adam’s composition, with Jerry’s color-block designs, and Lise as the prima ballerina. Lucas provides a context for the number, Wheeldon brings all his choreographic and story-telling experience to the piece, and it’s extraordinary. The middle section is a fantasy pas de deux between Jerry and Lise, and with only Gershwin’s timeless music and Wheeldon’s gorgeous movement, we watch as Lise clarifies her feelings about love and about Jerry. She’s changed by the end of the piece, and so are we.

Sara Esty is marvelous as Lise, bringing color and shade to her character and grace and lightness to her movement. Steele is an extraordinary dancer who floats and soars, unimpeded by gravity. The play’s soul resides in Brower’s Adam, who subsumes his love and his sorrow into his music. And Emily Ferranti is terrific as a patron who knows that as essential her money may be to the creation of art, she will always be at a remove from these artists and their work. She can appreciate but she can’t participate. (Another interpolation, “But Not for Me,” from Girl Crazy, that Adam and Milo sing together, is inspired. It doesn’t hurt that this may be the best song the Gershwins ever wrote: “They’re writing songs of love, but not for me./ A lucky star’s above, but not for me.”)

Underneath all of this is the wonderful music of George Gershwin (and Ira’s lyrics), and any review that doesn’t extol the work of Rob Fisher, the founding music director of New York’s Encores! Series, in adapting and arranging this marvelous score (expertly performed by a thirteen-member orchestra) would be seriously remiss.

An American in Paris, in all its imperfections, still does everything a musical should do. You leave the theater floating, astonished and grateful. Wheeldon, Lucas, and Fisher have created their own stairway to Paradise.

an-american-in-paris-tour-sara-esty-and-garen-scribner-2An American in Paris plays through October 8 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco. For more information, go to









TheatreWorks’ Luminous “The Light in the Piazza”

Clara meets Fabrizio

Clara (Whitney Bashor) and Fabrizio (Constantine Germanacos) meet in TheatreWorks' THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA. (Photo: Mark Kitaoka)

The Light in the Piazza, a great American musical, features perhaps the best book since Fiddler on the Roof, and a score so lush and ravishing, so full of feeling, that it gives the intimate, finely drawn story the sweep of an epic. Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers and son of Mary Rodgers, composed and orchestrated the magnificent music, and playwright Craig Lucas adapted the story from Elizabeth Spencer’s lovely 1960 novella.

Not a lot happens in Piazza, yet a profound change is wrought in its protagonist. Margaret Johnson, and her strangely child-like 26-year-old daughter Clara are travelling in Florence, revisiting the scene of Margaret’s honeymoon, when Clara meets a young Florentine, Fabrizio Naccarelli, and the two are immediately attracted. Initially Margaret opposes and impedes the relationship, but as she contemplates her own loveless marriage (husband Ray is back home tending to his work), she debates how much of Clara’s history she should reveal to Fabrizio and his family, and whether she has the right to deny her daughter romantic and sexual love.

Lucas’s adaptation has Margaret interrupt the action from time to time to share her thoughts directly with the audience, and she’s revealed to be warm, humorous, regretful, and very lonely. In a masterful stroke, Lucas resets a kiss that happens between Margaret and Fabrizio’s father. In Spencer’s original, Margaret allows the kiss with a very specific goal in mind. In Lucas’s script, the kiss happens after that goal has been achieved, with the result that the moment becomes infinitely more complicated and infinitely sadder. The kiss gives Margaret a glimpse of what she’s lost in her own life, what she’s helping her daughter to achieve in her life. Margaret’s own yearnings peek through her carefully built reserve, and to the audience, it’s overwhelming.

The play isn’t without faults, mostly stemming from Guettel’s lyrics. (I heard Guettel speak several years ago and he readily admits that lyric writing is the weakest part of his craft.) In “The Beauty Is,” Clara regards a sculpture of a male nude and sings “These are very popular in Italy./ It’s the land of naked marble boys./ Something we don’t see a lot in Winston, Salem. /That’s the land of corduroys.” It’s not exactly Lorenz Hart. But you forgive the clunkiness as the number goes on: Clara sings of the strangeness she sees in this new old land and the awakening of possibilities within herself. The song, like most others in the show, is a stunner.

The Broadway production, directed by Bartlett Sher, with Victoria Clark, Kelli O’Hara, and Glee’s Matthew Morrison in the main roles, was a transcendent experience. (That the show lost the Tony for Best Musical to Spamalot, is a joke worthy of, well, Spamalot.) I was thrilled when I heard that Palo Alto’s TheatreWorks would be giving this show its first major regional production. (The Palo Alto Players mounted the show a few years ago in a community theatre production.) TheatreWorks’ 2001 production of Guettel’s Floyd Collins, an unfocused but ultimately triumphant work, remains a theatrical highlight for me.

Guettel arranged Piazza’s score for a good-sized orchestra on Broadway, but so that the show could done be regionally, he re-orchestrated his songs for a six-piece ensemble. The music has been scaled down with amazing skill, and in one case, the lover’s duet that ends Act I, “Say It Somehow,” the lesser instrumentation actually improves the song, de-emphasizing some of the more conventional and sentimental elements in the music.  TheatreWorks also employs a much smaller cast— eight actors instead of the original 16.

This production, directed by Robert Kelley, is, on the whole, miraculous, successfully capturing the play’s evanescent, delicate emotions. J.B. Wilson’s fluid, gorgeous set presents Corinthian columns and Romanesque arches in ochres, siennas, and terracottas. Lighting designer Pamela Z. Gray works in the same hues, adding pale yellows to achieve the famous Florentine light, royal blues for interiors, and more ominous, darker blues for nighttime shadows. Costumer Fumiko Bielefeldt’s period-perfect designs put the American women in pastels with small flowered patterns, while the Italians are dressed more somberly in blacks, whites, and browns. And music director William Liberatore works miracles with his small crew.

Among the cast, Constantine Germanacos rivals Matthew’s Morrison’s performance as Fabrizio. He couldn’t be better. Singing “Il Mondo Era Vuoto,” (“The World was Empty”) one of Guettel’s many masterpieces (made all the more so by being written and sung completely in Italian: the only recognizable word to American audiences is “Clara”), Germanacos uses his stunning voice to express his love in ways more important than words. And when he’s comforting the distraught Clara, he uses stillness to counteract her franticness. He sings “Love to Me” both to reaffirm his ardor for Clara and to convince her that she’s worthy of his love: The extraordinary song and Germanacos’ tender bravura have the desired effect—on Clara and the audience both.

Whitney Bashor also has a spectacular voice as Clara, and her singing is tremendous. She has trouble in the first act handling some of Clara’ sudden shifts to confusion or terror, a problem likely to go away as the run progresses, especially considering how good she is in the second act. Her Clara is a girl who’s found freedom in the Italian air and love among the Italian people after a cloistered life in America. Her Act II breakdown, when she fears she’s too damaged to accept Fabrizio’s love, is heart-wrenching.

As Fabrizio’s worldly father, Martin Vidnovic has an authentic Mediterranean charm. As one of the few people in the Naccarelli family that speaks English, Signor Naccarelli resides solidly in the Old World even as he recognizes that some things must give as the New World arises. Vidnovic captures this beautifully. Actor Nicholas Aliaga lends the elder Naccarelli son, Giuseppe, the one acknowledged by the family to be a failure, a humorous acceptance of his lot, while Ariela Morgenstern is pitch-perfect (in every sense) as his put-upon wife. (Morgenstern looks and acts as if she stepped out of an early Fellini film. She is Italian Womanhood, circa 1953.) Caroline Altman brings a watchful charm to the role of Fabrizio’s mother, a woman long since relegated to the role of audience for the rest of her lively family. And in what could be a thankless part without a fine actor to bring it to life, Richard Frederick fully inhabits the small role of Margaret’s husband, bringing him a sympathetic humanity.

Piazza is of course, Margaret’s show. It’s an amazing role for an actress, and Victoria Clark’s Tony Award was the most deserved one on recent history. Rebecca Eichenberger undertakes the part here, and at first, she’s not entirely successful. She seems to be feeling her way into Margaret’s southern accent, and her rendition of “Dividing Day,” a triumph for Clark, lies rather flat, un-imbued with the necessary sentiment. But her talent manifests itself in the second act: There isn’t a false move when she navigates Margaret’s changing psyche as the things she thought she knew have changed irrevocably. She doesn’t have the voice that Clark has (who does?), but by the time she sings “Fable,” the show’s devastating finale (essentially an aria), she’s made the role her own.

It’s the director that has to bring together all these shimmering, simmering emotional depths, to balance the delicate shifts of tone, and Kelley does a remarkable job. When Clara sings “The Beauty Is” while roaming the Uffizi, he places a pair of lovers stealing a furtive kiss in the background, underscoring Clara’s sense of romantic possibility. When she gets lost on the way to a nighttime tryst with Fabrizio, the set pieces shift menacingly, heightening Clara’s confusion and fear. Kelley uses his small cast to create a Florence that is fully populated.  He does make one misstep. “Aiutami” (“Help”), the Act II opener, is Guettel’s least successful number, a semi-comic revelation of the Italian temperament that’s neither comic enough nor revelatory enough. Kelley tries to push the humor by having the Naccarellis strike overwrought poses as Mama sings. (Altman is endearing here, even though the song isn’t.) Unfortunately, he does this in time to the music, and it comes dangerously close to choreography. But the rest of the play proceeds as a beautiful, heartbreaking dream. Sorrow, love, and hope waft in the air like dust motes in the Florentine sunlight. The characters’ desires and hopes become the audience’s.

At play’s end, Margaret finishes singing, turns upstage and joins her daughter’s wedding, rejoining life. The lights fade to black, and it’s a benediction for the Johnsons, for the Naccarellis, for all of us.

Rebecca Eichenberger portrays Margaret Johnson. (Photo: Tracy Martin)

The Light in the Piazza plays from now until September 19 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, 94039.  For more information, call 650-463-1960 or visit