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.
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 plays through October 8 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco. For more information, go to https://www.shnsf.com.