Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Tonight's Theater: An American in Paris

This evening I saw the national touring production of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is, of course, loosely inspired by the Oscar-winning 1951 film of the same name. "Loosely" is the key word here; the five lead characters are the same, but not much remains of the movie story.

The new plot by Craig Lucas is, frankly, fairly incoherent. In this version ex-U.S. soldier Jerry (McGee Maddox) and his friend, Frenchman Henri (Nick Spangler), are still each in love with Lise (Sara Esty) -- unbeknownst to each other -- but this time around composer Adam (Etai Benson) loves her, too!

Everyone comes together as a new ballet is created starring Lise, sponsored by wealthy American Milo (Emily Ferranti).

Rather than a linear, easy-to-follow story, it seems to wander a great deal; overall it comes off as more of a hazy, impressionistic mood piece, capturing the feel of postwar France -- still struggling with shortages, with electricity likely to go out at any moment. One of the show's strengths is conveying the aftermath of war, with a city and characters injured inside and out. The mood is so good, it's a shame the script didn't match.

In terms of the overall book, the show needed less talk, less time, and more music. Intermission seemed to come abruptly early, just 70 minutes into the show, and whereas the second act of a musical is often shorter, Act II ran just as long as the first; it should easily have been 10 minutes shorter. The characters tend to babble on and on long after we've gotten the point, and some of the second act is just plain odd.

I found another reviewer who shared my take, saying "It’s shameful that a ball-and-chain script is attached to some of the most luminous dancemaking in recent Broadway history. Here, romance is heightened by the dance, and made dour by the libretto."

One of the strangest plot changes is that whereas Henri is an accomplished entertainer in the movie, here he's a wanna-be held back by his wealthy family; when he first sings "Stairway to Paradise" he squeaks on certain notes and bumps into the scenery. Huh? Painful, not enjoyable. The number then turns into a dream sequence where he's a polished star backed by an impressive chorus line, before returning him back to the cafe setting where he can barely sing.

Esty comes off best as Lise, a solemn, wary survivor of the war, and she's a beautiful dancer. Intriguingly, Esty's twin sister, Leigh-Ann, appears in the role two performances a week!

Maddox dances well, but when they're not dancing he and Esty don't conjure up much romantic heat or heart. Though it's the fault of the script and not the actor, Jerry initially comes across almost stalker-ish, causing problems for Lise at her job. We never really feel a connection; is their dance relationship enough?

In keeping with the somber postwar vibe, the sets are often dark and dimly lit, with occasional pops of color, such as Lise's yellow dress. I assumed that the colors would come out at the end and the ballet would be incredibly colorful...and was surprised when that didn't really happen. The ballet chorus wear bright primary colors of yellow, red, and blue, but it wasn't the explosion of colors that I expected, which was interesting.

Many of the Gershwin songs used in the film also appear in this; "Our Love is Here to Stay" is notably missing, along with "By Strauss" and "Tra-La-La." Other Gershwin tunes were added in, including "The Man I Love" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me." Except for regretting the omission of "Our Love is Here to Stay" I was fine with the song swaps, and I found "The Man I Love" particularly well-suited to the show's tone.

Throughout the show strains of the "American in Paris" ballet music are occasionally heard in the background, which was effective in helping set the stage for the eventual ballet, but I was ultimately disappointed in the orchestration of the actual ballet music. Just when the music should have been reaching soaring high points, it would instead dissipate and never really hit those great orchestral moments those familiar with the music expect. It was quite muted. Additionally, Jerry and Lise took turns offstage during the ballet, I assume to rest.

In terms of the overall set design, I liked the dancers moving the sets and furniture very much; it was one of the more inspired aspects of the show. I was unsure how I felt about the reliance on electronic screens for the backgrounds; it was quite effective at times yet also felt like a cheap substitute for real sets.

Complaints aside, there's quite a bit of good dancing in the show, and some strong singing as well; I enjoyed it, even as I was analyzing where it was letting me down.

Though I had a pleasant evening at the theater, I've seen many theatrical shows which are far superior, and I'm not sure I'd recommend it. Dance fans may find it worthwhile, as I did; however, while there are parts of a good show in here, it feels like this was an out-of-town tryout for a show which still needs significant tinkering, rather than a polished Broadway hit.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS was directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. It plays in Costa Mesa through May 7th and will be touring through many cities until at least June 2018; the schedule is here.

Related posts: Tonight's Theater: The Phantom of the Opera; Tonight's Theater: My Fair Lady; Tonight's Theater: South Pacific (October 14, 2010); Tonight's Theater: South Pacific (October 22, 2010); Tonight's Theater: Beauty and the Beast; Tonight's Theater: Mary Poppins; Tonight's Theater: West Side Story; Tonight's Theater: A Christmas Carol; Tonight's Theater: White Christmas; Tonight's Theater: The Lion King; Tonight's Theater: 42nd Street; Tonight's Theater: Wicked; Tonight's Theater: The Sound of Music.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

While I'm not the biggest fan of Alan Lerner's Oscar winning screenplay, it doesn't stand in the way of the music. It sounds like the librettist didn't have that in mind in adapting for the stage. The draw here is Gershwin, and that should never be forgotten.

5:48 AM  

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