“An American in Paris,” the Broadway hit that opened Tuesday at steamy Starlight Theatre, is less a typical musical comedy than it is a dance extravaganza.
Sure, there are great songs (courtesy of the Gershwin brothers), snatches of comedy and a knockout physical production. But the great attraction here is dancing, dancing and more dancing.
That dancing culminates near the end of Act 2 with the 16-minute “American in Paris” ballet, a work of such musical muscle and terrific choreography (thanks to director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon) that it’s all but guaranteed to send the audience out on a high.
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Good thing, too, for during much of the show I found myself chafing under some of the choices made by author Craig Lucas in adapting the hit 1951 motion picture for the stage. Those familiar with that Gene Kelly/Leslie Caron classic know that it was piffle … but piffle delivered with just the right dash of cockiness and charm.
The stage version, on the other hand, threatens to become a rather dour affair. Lucas gives us a Paris traumatized by four years of Nazi occupation and forcing itself to be gay. There’s a deep thread of anxiety and denial running throughout (in the opening scene a mob attacks a woman accused of consorting with the Germans — not exactly lighthearted stuff).
Into this world steps ex-G.I. Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox), who has decided to stick around and try his hand at the art game. On his first day in town he spots a beautiful girl, the dancer Lise (Sara Esty), and begins sketching her, not quite realizing that their fates are entwined.
In this retelling Lise is the centerpiece of a romantic rectangle. She wows Jerry, but she’s more or less betrothed to Henri (Nick Spangler), son of a French industrialist (though what he really wants to be is a song-and-dance man). And she’s also cast her spell over the pleasantly cynical Adam (Etai Benson in the show’s single best performance), the American pianist/composer who has been commissioned to write a ballet in which Lise will dance the lead.
To complicate matters, Jerry is chosen by the rich and spoiled American girl Milo (Emily Ferranti) as her next boy toy (she’s got so much money she can buy her way into the art world).
None of this is particularly compelling (it wasn’t in the movie, either), but thankfully every few minutes another Gershwin classic is given a workout: “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “’S Wonderful,” “But Not for Me,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
For all the angsty undercurrents, Lucas’ book doesn’t do a whole lot with the principal characters, most of whom are maddeningly bland. (Hey, even in the movie Kelly had to work overtime to make Jerry interesting.)
Maddox, who is more clearly a hoofer/singer than an actor, comes off as wooden — at least until he’s called upon to dance, at which point all is forgiven.
Same goes for Esty, a lovely dancer who never registers much of a personality.
Faring better are Spangler, who has a knockout dance routine in “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” and especially Benson, who serves as the tale’s narrator and romantic odd man out.
The physical production is hugely impressive, thanks to a series of animated images projected on a huge screen behind the action, conjuring up Parisian street scenes and, in one wildly imaginative sequence, a giant cubist painting that comes to life through spectacular animation.
Whatever the shortcomings of the material, you’ve got to give props to the talented ensemble, who started their evening dancing in 94-degree heat and were still going strong nearly three hours later.
“An American in Paris” continues through Sunday, July 16, at Starlight Theatre, 4600 Starlight Road. See kcstarlight.com or call 816-363-7827.