Except for a few establishing long shots and some introductory stock footage, every frame of MGM's 1951 Academy Award-winner An American in Paris was shot in Culver City, California. Yet this golden musical from the studio's legendary Freed Unit has more flavor and joie de vivre in any individual shot than there is in almost the entire two hours of faux French farce we have to endure in the Alley Theatre's lavish world premiere musical The Gershwins' An American in Paris.
Using some of the best-known classics from the Gershwin brothers' songbook ("I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," "Love Walked In," "They All Laughed," "Beginner's Luck"), along with a revived showstopper written for Fred Astaire but dropped from Damsel in Distress ("Wake Up, Brother, and Dance"), this jukebox musical only soars when it sings and dances. You might think that's plenty for a musical, but unfortunately, there's a book to plow through, and as soon as the show starts to talk, it stumbles over its nimble feet. While veteran playwright Ken Ludwig (Moon Over Buffalo, Lend Me a Tenor and the 1992 Tony-winning Gershwin-inspired Crazy for You) should know better, he fritters away any trace of Parisian class and chic, even the MGM kind, and settles for broad stereotypes and stale wordplay that's uneasily shoehorned onto his characters. "When the crows fly home from Cappuccino" and "the pinochle of my success" are two such Ludwigean epigrams.
While the basic idea has plenty of juicy opportunity — the play is a backstage prequel to the Gene Kelly/Vincente Minnelli musical — the bright spots are few. There's one early on that promises much. Miss Klemm, movie mogul Goldman's efficient but emotionally muffled secretary, is told to go to Paris to convince wayward French music hall star Michel Gerard to honor his film contract and go to work. Goldman's toady, the nerdy Preston, who dreams of his own stardom, is to accompany her. The orchestra begins a vamp. Miss Klemm doesn't want to go and stalls with a silly list of reasons to stay home. "It's too late for that," Preston says with a delightful twinkle, tapping his foot. "The music's started." And off they go. There's nothing else like it in the entire show. It's a theatrical moment light as air, as magical as they come — the very essence of what a musical comedy thrives on — but it never comes again. The show plods on, sinking into the obvious with cheap, easy laughs and a leaden dearth of imagination.
The Gershwins' An American in Paris
The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700
Through June 15. $40-$90.
Worsening things is the utter lack of chemistry between the two leads. Not only is there no spark, there's no Michel. Harry Groener, a Broadway pro who knows his way around a Gershwin musical blindfolded, plays him so low-key and repressed that he fades away while we're watching. Groener doesn't expand in this role, he contracts, never holding our ear or eye. Some music hall star! The character is moody and depressed over his recent career choices — he's French, after all — but, as played so dyspeptically by Groener, Michel Gerard might be the first existential character in all musical comedy. He's just not there. As the repressed Miss Klemm, the winsome Kerry O'Malley, with her smoky, raw silk voice, exudes enough light for both of them. She bounces deliriously on the bed and croons "'S Wonderful" while under the spell of first love, and totally enthralls. She has the audience eating out of her hand. O'Malley is so delightful, we root for Miss Klemm and her romance even though there's not much evidence of it. The remainder of the characters are a stale grab bag from B movies: the gruff, blustering Jewish movie mogul, his brassy and sexually starved wife, the dumb Hollywood blond, the forever-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown Hollywood director, the star's milquetoast lackey.
In truth, the musical is "owned" by the secondary couple, played with real showbiz flair by Jeffry Denman, as puppy dog-frisky Preston, and Meredith Patterson, as Yvette, the loopy, movie-quoting French girl he chases. Even without the razzle-dazzle lighting from Paul Gallo, these two Broadway babies are incandescent. Whenever they're on, the show kicks into high gear, and each of their dance numbers becomes a high point. These naturals are the show, and perhaps, if there are future rewrites, their characters will fully emerge as this musical's true headliners.
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The other undisputed showstopper is choreographer Randy Skinner, whose rousing, highly inventive tap routines radiate electricity. The hardworking ensemble performs each intricately patterned dance with dexterity and energy to spare. Led by Patterson, looking so cool — and so hot — as a typical '50s French femme fatale, "Clap Yo' Hands" is particularly sprightly and most resembles the glamour and verve of an old-time Hollywood musical.
The Alley supplies its own brand of MGM gloss with an opulent physical production that must have cost nearly as much as Louis B. Mayer's annual salary — to say nothing about paying all those musicians. Carrie Robbins sumptuously swathes the large cast in ooh-la-la costumes, while set designer Douglas Schmidt impressionistically evokes Paris's unique vibe, especially in Michel's window-filled garret apartment, with its looming panorama of Sacré-Cur Basilica.
Director Gregory Boyd moves the show along as if he were Gene Kelly himself — it glides without effort, weightless. Transitions are so fluid that scenes seem to dissolve into one another. This is Boyd's most vibrant, heartfelt work, but his theater magic dulls when faced with so many of Ludwig's stick characters and stock situations.
The polish, urbanity and jazz of the impeccable Gershwins is stomped into second-rate vaudeville and hoary farce. Leave it to glittering lyricist Ira Gershwin to prophesy so aptly: "Isn't It a Pity."