This melodious musical, “inspired by” the splendid Oscar-winning MGM movie that starred Gene Kelly as leading man and choreographer, is a thrilling theatrical adaptation that unspools in ever more wow effects as it progresses. But it's hard to beat that opening...
...We're in Paris moments after the Nazis have been defeated. The gigantic swastika banner is pulled down and hurtled toward us, billowing, until it reaches the footlights, where it changes into the French tricolor, and then swooped upstage, swirling like great ocean swells. Bombers sweep over the Arc de Triomphe. Our hero Jerry (athletically vibrant Ryan Steele) looks up and salutes. Set pieces fly in. The rooftops and boulevards are sketched like living charcoal drawings. The streets come alive with shell-shocked survivors. A collaborator, her head shaved, is dragged screaming into the mob. Couples embrace, dancing their liberation. Everything is black, white and gray. Bread lines form. Gerry sees a young woman sharing her baguette with someone less fortunate. Intrigued and instantly in love, he's separated from her in the bustling crowd. Color slowly emerges from the gloom. Dawn breaks over Paris. Jerry tears up his ticket home. He's staying here to find that girl. Romance perfumes the dank air.
All this is set to a pastiche of Gershwin's jazzy tone poem “Piano Concerto in F.” In a few minutes, we get the backstory entirely told through movement and music. It's one of the most striking opening numbers of any show in ages and boldly declares that “dancing is back and foremost” in the Broadway musical.
No surprise, really, since the director/choreographer is Christopher Wheeldon, one of ballet's most inventive phenoms. This is his first musical, but he's no stranger to the stage. He's choreographed for every major international ballet company, and his work (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Carnival of the Animals, Polyphonia, The Winter's Tale) has been lauded ever since he created his first pieces for London's Royal Ballet, where he studied and danced in the early '90s.
This show moves as if on casters. Rhythmic and fluid, it flows and ebbs, like music: adagio here, presto there. A lot of presto, for this is stage magic of a wondrous kind. The show is immensely fun to watch. Even something so mundane as a character's exit seems fresh and thought through. Wheeldon isn't the only prestidigitator on view (he won deserved Tony Awards for his direction and choreography). Gape at Bob Crowley's skewed perspective sets and glamorous costumes, Natasha Katz's speckled lighting, and the dazzling trompe l'oeil projection design by 59 Productions. All received Tony Awards, among numerous other theater prizes, for their imaginative work.
Playwright Craig Lucas gets no accolades for his rather clumsy adaptation of Alan Jay Lerner's purer screenplay. He adds unnecessary noir gravity to the original's lightness, tripping up the romance with contemporary motifs that seem to be stapled, not woven, into the fabric. Backdating the original's early '50s date to just after liberation doesn't do much harm, but it lessens the story's obvious charm. Putting Henri (Nick Spangler), Jerry's rival for the young girl, in the closet isn't fatal, but it isn't very interesting either. It's rather cheap and too easy. And must sour musician Adam (Etai Benson as the Oscar Levant character from the film) also have to be an unrequited rival? Two men in love with Lise (Sara Esty in perfect Leslie Caron mode) is conflict; three's a crowd. Emily Ferranti has a bright singing voice, but as society woman Milo, on the make for Jerry, she's awfully young. But she wears Crowley's colorful haute couture with style. (You know you're in the hands of pros when the emerald lining of your jacket matches your skirt.)
But in the end, it's the dancing that saves everything. Not a misstep anywhere. Wheeldon mixes and matches with insouciant assurance. He knows exactly what he's doing. There's a bit of swing; lovely pas de deux (a Wheeldon specialty); a Ziegfeld production number in top hat with feathered showgirls (Henri's song-and-dance fantasy at Radio City Music Hall, minus the grand staircase that was a highlight at the world premiere in Paris); a comedy number, “Fidgety Feet,” to open Act II; and, of course, the closing knockout, the ballet set to “An American in Paris.” In the movie, Kelly and his designers appropriated the styles of various painters for the divertissements (Utrillo, Lautrec, Dufy, Manet), but Wheeldon uses only one, Mondrian. Crowley's dance costumes of red and yellow block patterns are especially pleasing, while Wheeldon goes to town on this showstopper, his homage to contemporary dance. In a lovely coup de théâtre, the back curtain rises and we see maestro Adam leading the orchestra from the viewpoint of the stage.
Steele is a natural athlete, lithe and pliant, with a Broadway gypsy's extension and high jump. His singing voice is light but strong, and he's a picture-book innocent, all quick moves and speed for days. (He's the “alternate” Jerry on Saturday and Sunday matinees, but on TUTS's opening night he opened for an indisposed Garen Scribner, who's first-cast Jerry on this national tour. Scribner is darker, more in line with the original's Robert Fairchild, but Steele's playful spirit, like an orange tabby, suits Jerry.) There are no real sparks between him and Esty's Lise, but there weren't any either with Fairchild and his Lise, Leanne Cope. It's all in the dancing anyway, and Steele and Esty dance together with unrestricted passion. On the dance floor, they make a lovely couple.
The movie's a classic and it's possible that this Broadway version will become one, too. It's got a Gershwin songbook, the look and the moves. Who could ask for anything more?
An American in Paris continues at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and February 28; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 5. Theatre Under The Stars, The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $46.50 to $120.