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It comes as no surprise that the treasured music and lyrics of George & Ira Gershwin can still produce a winner for Broadway. That fact is made abundantly clear in the Broadway national tour of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, now being presented by Theatre Under the Stars at Houston’s Hobby Center. The musical is based on the classic 1951 MGM film of the same name, and if the show’s somewhat wandering book (author, Craig Lucas) is a shortcoming, it really doesn’t matter. The Gershwin’s sublime score combines with the dazzling dancing to nicely rescue any weaknesses in the plot (Director and Choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon). Adding to the glow are the lighting designs of Natasha Katz, which pair creatively with the imaginative projection designs from 59 Productions.
The lightweight plot finds us in 1940’s Paris at the end of World War II. Jerry Mulligan is an American soldier and aspiring artist who decides to remain in the post-war City of Light to hone his craft. In the performance I attended, that part was played by Ryan Steele, who alternates in the role with Garen Scribner.
Before long Jerry is palling around Paree with new chums, Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson) and Frenchman, Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler). Adam is a composer and fellow veteran, while Henri is the son of wealthy industrialists, M. & Mme. Baurel (Don Noble and Gayton Scott). The parents, generous patrons of the arts, expect their son to take his place in the family business. Henri’s domineering mother is determined her son will marry a promising young ballerina named Lise Dassin (Sara Esty). Henri prefers to envision a life as a song-and-dance man. Conflicts arise when Jerry encounters Lise and quickly falls in love with her, not realizing Henri’s mother has already engineered her son’s reluctant engagement to the ballerina. It complicates the love triangle a bit more when pretty American philanthropist, Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti), encounters handsome Jerry and is struck by his talent as a painter. Soon she has him doing scenic designs for the ballet that Adam is composing, and in which Lise will star. Of course all will end well, but enough about the often far-fetched story line, and on to the main course, the music, which is beautifully performed throughout by the vocally talented cast and ensemble, and with the fine orchestra conducted by Music Director, David Andrews Rogers.
This jazzy Parisian world is first revealed to us in the full company’s shadowy opening ballet set to George Gershwin’s lovely “Concerto in F.” Traditional set designers must be panicking as scenes like this one, looking like an antique postcard with its soft, sepia tones, consist of fleeting phantom images created almost wholly by the increasingly popular projection technology. The enchanting dancing of the cast beautifully fills the scene. Next, our buddy threesome and the ensemble light up the stage with a breezy and infectious, “I Got Rhythm.” We have our first look at the graceful elegance of the petite Miss Esty during the delicacy of the lovely “Second Prelude” ballet.
A few easily mobile set pieces (from Set/Costume Designer, Bob Crowley), quickly transport us to the perfume shop where Lise works. Mr. Steele is an athletic whirling dervish as the smitten Jerry woos her there while dancing, “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck.” Crowley’s lovely pleated pastel dresses for the ladies brighten the scene. There is a lush, warm, “The Man I Love” from the velvet-voiced Esty, and then a joyfully simple and romantic dance duet from her and Steele. He sings the cheerful, “Liza,” and is shortly joined by Benson and Spangler as they blend their voices for a delightfully mellow, “’S Wonderful.” Two more treats close out Act One as Milo flirts with Jerry. Dressed in smashing emerald green satin, Miss Ferranti delivers a vocally excellent, “Shall We Dance,” while the graceful twosome does just that. The full company’s “Second Rhapsody/Cuban Overture” number begins with dreamy sensuousness under an Eiffel Tower skyline, and then becomes a crimson explosion with eye-popping excitement in the fire and smoke of the erotic and richly colorful dancing at the Beaux Arts Ball.
As Act Two gets underway the excitement is building for completion of Adam’s ballet score, set to feature Jerry’s scenic art designs with Lise in the production’s starring role. Henri and his family host them all at a Ballet Board of Director’s meeting in their palatial home. A rather droll entertainment is provided the guests, with the unintended comedy of the clumsy Eclipse of Uranus ballet, which might remind one of the Grecian Urns scene in The Music Man. Jerry is so bored by it that he gets “Fidgety Feet,” that soon have the entire room on its feet and abandoning the classics to embrace the jazzy contemporary dance style Adam is planning for the new production. Ferranti and Spangler offer a haunting, “Who Cares,” and are quickly joined by Steele and Esty in a wonderful counterpoint quartet of, “For You, For Me, For Evermore.” The poignant, “But Not For Me,” from Ferranti and Benson is a whimsical calm before the storm of the two sensational full-company showstoppers that follow. Spangler and Benson lead an “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” that’s a knockout, with glittering showgirls and the top hat/tap dance triumph of its Radio City Music Hall-style chorus line.
Then we finally see the finished product of the ballet these characters have all been working toward: “An American in Paris.” Brilliantly staged to create the illusion we are watching the production from backstage, it is an epic and lengthy dance piece full of colorful, unexpected and avant garde dance sequences, all beautifully performed by this amazing cast, and by handsome Barton Cowperthwaite as Lise’s partner in the new ballet. After all of that happiness, there was still one more delightful song I won’t reveal, but will pleasantly remember. Let me just say they can’t take that away from me.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS continues through March 5th at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances Wednesday, Thursday, & Sunday at 7:30 pm, Friday & Saturday evenings at 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. For tickets visit the website at http://www.thehobbycenter.org, or call (713) 558-8887 locally, and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston).