Monday, July 31, 2017

Ooh La La: Classy Blend of Gershwin, Ballet and Classic MGM Makes 'An American in Paris' Très Bien

Theater Review

An American in Paris
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 13

Last week was one in which several of my longest-standing passions quite directly reiterated themselves.

Likely by the time I turned 7 years old, my dad had introduced me to the Beatles (and other rock acts not long after), indoctrinated me as a Cubs fan (though one who never disliked the White Sox) and instilled a lifelong affinity for the great MGM film musicals starring Gene Kelly (Singin' in the Rain, On the Town, etc.).

And within another year or two, my parents would take me to live theater--including A Chorus Line and even The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas--with the rest of the family.

Last Tuesday, I attended a concert by Paul McCartney, with my mom and sister Allison. (My father passed several years ago.)

Wednesday I saw my beloved--and finally, World Champion--Cubs beat the White Sox at the latter's stadium, alongside a diehard Sox fan who is a close friend.

And Thursday, I went to see a touring rendition of An American in Paris, a recent Broadway musical inspired by the 1951 MGM film starring none other than Gene Kelly.

I can't say I liked the show quite as much as I did Sir Paul, but featuring several songs by George & Ira Gershwin, it too was rather melodically sublime.

And though there was something that seemed imperfect about the narrative of An American In Paris as it chronicles three men infatuated with the same woman toward a denouement that feels a bit forced, the incorporation of impressive ballet throughout makes it a musical more unique--and graceful--than most.

Long before it was an MGM musical, An American in Paris was a jazz-influenced orchestral piece that George Gershwin composed in 1928.

After attending a concert of the piece, movie producer Arthur Freed was smitten not only by the music but by the name, and pursued the idea of creating An American in Paris as an MGM film musical. George Gershwin had died in 1937, but Freed negotiated with Ira Gershwin for the rights to use several tunes for which he had written lyrics to his brother's brilliant music. 

The movie won the Best Picture Oscar for 1951--and five other Academy Awards--but wasn't transitioned to the stage until a Broadway-bound version debuted in late 2014 at Paris' Théâtre du Châtelet, helmed by noted ballet choreographer & director, Christopher Wheeldon. (The Englishman is also responsible for the Joffrey Ballet's new version of The Nutcracker.)

The stage version, now touring the U.S. following an 18-month Broadway run and an extant London production, retains three great songs from the movie--"I Got Rhythm," "'S Wonderful" and "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise"--while adding several other Gershwin tunes.

These include "I've Got Beginner's Luck," "The Man I Love," "Fidgety Feet" and "But Not for Me."

As in the film--which I've seen more recently than my childhood but won't claim to explicitly recall--there is a lengthy ballet set to George Gershwin's original "An American in Paris" instrumental piece.

And the ballet dancing is substantial and exquisite throughout, with both leads--McGee Maddox as Jerry Mulligan and Sara Esty as Lise Dassin--having impressive ballet credentials.

As for the story, at the end of World War II, Jerry has decided to remain in Paris to pursue his passion for painting (in the environs of Picasso, who the show references). He almost immediately sees the beautiful Lise, but doesn't interact with her until after befriending composer Adam Hochberg (nicely played by Etai Benson) and Henri Baurel (likewise by Nick Spangler).

Initially unbeknownst to Jerry, Henri--scion to one of Europe's wealthiest families--has long been dating Lise, but may well be gay (per multiple intimations within the dialogue) at a time when he cannot openly admit it.

Adam, who is enlisted to compose a ballet in which Lise will star, is also smitten by the ballerina.

And the attractive American philanthropist funding the ballet, Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti), is smitten with Jerry, who she engages to create designs for the new commission.

Henri's parents (played by Gayton Scott & Don Noble) also factor into the proceedings, and if it sounds like there's a lot going on, at times it did seem as though there were a few too many characters and threads.

This doesn't really matter because the music and ballet dancing are so good, along with impressive scenery evoking post-war Paris.

The cast members are all quite good, though despite being a handsome ballet dancer also blessed with the ability to sing and act, Maddox--who is fairly new to the tour cast--quite understandably doesn't match Gene Kelly for charisma and roguish charm.

From my seat in the very last row of the Oriental Theatre, I also didn't sense Maddox yet having tremendous chemistry with the winsome Esty.

So while I won't reveal how the love quadrangle unwinds itself, the characterizations seem to somewhat belie the way it does.

But whether you find yourself on Team Jerry, Team Adam or Team Henri, you'll find musical delight 'til the very end as the trio finely delivers the closing "They Can't Take That Away From Me."

And hence, despite some muddle with its storyline's arc, An American in Paris onstage is truly a triomphe.

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