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Regional Reviews: Chicago

An American in Paris
National Tour
Review by John Olson

Also see John's report on Jimmy Buffett and Christopher Ashley in Conversation with Chris Jones and review of Hir


Nick Spangler, Etai Benson, McGee Maddox,
and Cast

Photo by Matthew Murphy
Do a search for "greatest American composers" and you're unlikely to find a list that doesn't include George Gershwin, whether the list is of popular or classical composers. In his 38 years of life, he wrote over 500 popular songs, many of which remain standards today, and orchestral and piano works for the concert hall as well as the opera Porgy and Bess.

His tone poem An American in Paris, first performed by the New York Philharmonic in 1928, is probably the composition that best bridges Gershwin's pop and classical work. It's accessible in its simple melodies, alternately energetic and soulful; and in its playful orchestration including taxi horns—and one of the most popular pieces in pop orchestral repertoire. It seems like the score of a musical comedy in its own right, and the brass at MGM Studios in the 1940s rightly saw its potential to become a big hit movie musical. The 1950 film by Vincente Minnelli, with a script by My Fair Lady's Alan Jay Lerner interpolated Gershwin pop songs and used nearly the entire original composition of Gershwin's tone poem as a 17-minute ballet to close the film. It's considered one of the best movie musicals of all time, and clearly must have been on everyone's list for a stage adaptation (a la Singin' in the Rain) for some time, until lead producer Stuart Oken, the Pittsburgh CLO, and Paris's Theatre du Chatelet finally found a way to merge the ballet and musical theater demands into a stage musical.

Their An American in Paris is a loving tribute to Gershwin, incorporating not only the title tone poem as a ballet, but doing the same with sections of other orchestral works by Gershwin—including "Concerto in F," "Second Prelude," Second Rhapsody" and "Cuban Overture." The ensemble and the leading man and lady of the touring production, McGee Maddox and Sara Esty, come from the ballet world, as does the highly esteemed director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. The orchestra is a mere 13 pieces, but it sounds reasonably full if not the equivalent of a symphony orchestra. The production design is handsome, with Bob Crowley's sets employing impressionistic views of Parisian streets as well as mid 20th century abstract art, much of it projected. Crowley designed the costumes as well, capturing both high and low fashion of the era, as well as ballet costumes.

There's much artistry on display here, and it's clear the producers spared no expense in putting together an impressive tribute to Gershwin. What they didn't do, though, is create a great musical. The book by Craig Lucas largely follows (though it doesn't credit) Lerner's story of Jerry Mulligan, an American GI who stays in Paris after the end of WWII to pursue a painting career and falls in love with an aspiring ballerina who is engaged to another man. Like the film, it interpolates songs (though not entirely the same songs) George and Ira Gershwin wrote for earlier musicals, but only occasionally do they heighten the emotions in the way the best musicals do.

Following an impressive opening ballet set to "Concerto in F," this musical's first pop song is Gershwin's arguably most popular one—"I Got Rhythm." The writers make the odd choice to begin it as a downbeat number—the premise is that the songwriter, Adam (Etai Benson), is in a "blue period." Though the singer, Henri (Nick Spangler), soon brings up the tempo, the joy inherent in this song as we know it just doesn't feel earned.

Some moments work better. Jerry's initial flirtation with dancer Lise is accompanied by his performance of "I've Got Beginner's Luck," and is the one moment when Maddox evokes the spirit of Gene Kelly, the Jerry of the film. Esty follows with a satisfactory reading of "The Man I Love" and Jerry continues to romance her with a nice "Liza." Another effective moment comes in the second act, when Adam, who has also developed an interest in Lise, and Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti), the rich American with designs on Jerry, both realize they're not going to get who they want and sing a mournful "But Not for Me." Other song choices are less effective, though.

Opening the second act with a scene in which Jerry accompanies Milo to a party where Lise is present—and in which he is understandably anxious to be seen with another date in front of the woman he's pursuing—the writers put their characters into a comedy dance number ("Fidgety Feet") that's wrong for the moment. In the following scene, where Milo and Henri realize they have romantic competition, they sing the peppy "Who Cares?" while their body language shows they clearly do care.

While it seems the bulk of the blame has to go to Lucas for not integrating songs and story better, Wheeldon fails to build action to those emotional heights when "words aren't enough and you have to sing." Benson, Spangler and Ferranti are all solid musical theater actors, and Esty makes a lovable and touching Lise, but Maddox isn't enough of an actor to carry the lead and make us really pull for Jerry. As a result, the book scenes (which feel long) fall flat as we're waiting for more music.

But in the end, there is the music—and the dance. For a Gershwin lover (and aren't we all), An American in Paris is almost a must, even if it isn't a landmark in the way the film was.

An American in Paris plays the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago, through August 13, 2017. For further information and tickets, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com or call 800-775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit www.anamericaninparisbroadway.com.


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