By: Anita W. Harris
A touring “new musical” version of An American in Paris, directed by Christopher Wheeldon and at the Pantages Theatre through April 9, is as visually exceptional as it is musically rich. Its heavy ballet inflection adds an ethereal quality to the musical’s post-WWII love story. Inspired staging, exquisite choreography and music by George and Ira Gershwin magically combine to transport the audience to an artistically rich yet still haunted Paris at the close of the war, with all its possibilities of reinvention.
Jerry Mulligan (Garen Scribner) is a veteran soldier who decides to remain in Paris once the war ends to become an artist, carrying nothing more than his innate talent, a sketchpad and a ton of naïve American idealism. He soon meets acerbic pianist and composer Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson), a fellow American who also narrates the story, in a bistro run by Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler), who, unbeknownst to his wealthy and well established French parents, dreams of performing in American nightclubs. The three become fast friends until ballerina Lise Dassin (Sara Esty) complicates their friendship with secrets and buried truths that soon come to light.
Throughout their story, the complexly delightful music of George Gershwin, with songs by Ira Gershwin, is matched by Wheeldon’s exquisite choreography. Scribner and Etsy are the lead dancers, but during many songs they are accompanied by an ensemble of about 20 other dancers moving in precise harmony with jazz, swing, tap and classical ballet movements. Amazingly, all four leads also sing well; some of the better-known, toe-tapping songs include “I Got Rhythm,” “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck,” and “Fidgety Feet.”
Acting, too, is mostly emotive, expressive and often humorous, though for the two main leads, Scribner and Esty, it occasionally takes a backseat to their singing and dancing. Etsy especially as Lise is less fluid in her acting than she is in her breathtakingly airy dancing, which makes her character somewhat less believable as an “enigma” to the three men, as pianist Hochberg (Benson) describes her.
But the other two leads compensate, as do the supporting actors, especially Emily Ferranti as rich American Ms. Davenport, who takes budding artist Mulligan (Scribner) under her wing in a very cozy way, supporting his career in order to further her own goals of infiltrating the Parisian art world. Complementing her in acting strength is Gayton Scott as Henri’s very upright mother, Madame Baurel, who looks down her nose at nearly everyone in humorously scathing ways.
And if the music, singing and dancing make an enchanting cake, costumes and sets (both designed by Bob Crowley) gild it with euphoric icing. Costumes range from American soldiers’ uniforms, to 1940s-style high-waisted suits and swirly dresses, to coattails and top hats for the men and sparkles and feathers for women during Henri’s glorious Radio City Music Hall fantasy sequence.
Among the more ingenious props used on stage are a series of wheeled panels, mirrored on one side and darkly screened on the other. Video (designed by 59 Productions) is strategically projected onto the dark sides as these screens are efficiently moved around the stage, creating scenes such as the bistro where the men first meet, a mirrored ballet studio and the boulevards of Paris.
Video is additionally projected onto the backdrop to create such captivating visuals as the river quay where Mulligan (Scribner) and Lise (Esty) secretly meet, and a movingly patriotic image of aircraft flying over Paris’s Arc de Triomphe monument. Most memorably, geometric projections frame a second-act extended ballet sequence, with dancers costumed in avant-garde primary colors, transforming the entire dance into a visual work of art.
An American in Paris thus seems an especially fitting artistic production for the Art Deco design of the Pantages theatre itself. Though inspired by the 1951 movie of the same title, this version tells the story more as a series of vignettes (some more punchy than others) defined by the songs, with ballet gracefully infusing nearly all the dance. The result is a ride of great beauty and emotional intensity, a magical carpet on which to get carried away.
An American in Paris continues at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, through April 9, with performances Tuesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm. Tickets are $35-$225. For tickets and information, call the theatre at (323) 468-1770 or visit hollywoodpantages.com.