An American in Paris: a romantic spectacle lacking heart

At the Ordway, through June 18

The large Ordway stage feels almost built for big, spectacular looking shows like An American in Paris, the new Broadway tour running there through June 18. It’s a massive space that many have had trouble filling, but this new musical is brimming with gorgeous images, stunning backdrops, and dazzling choreography. An American in Paris is truly a sumptuous visual experience.

Similarly, the show features the music of George and Ira Gershwin, whose lovely, familiar tunes are a source of true joy. The musical’s Tony-winning orchestrations are lush, supporting all the beautiful ballet on display. As such, it’s unfortunate that An American in Paris ultimately feels so empty.

The book, by Craig Lucas, is based on a 1951 film of the same name and follows Jerry Mulligan, an American soldier who stays in Paris following World War II to pursue his passion for painting. He encounters Lise, a mysterious young ballet dancer on the verge of stardom, and instantly falls in love. Jerry also befriends Adam, a young American composer also just out of the war, and Henri, a rich young Frenchman with a secret dream of becoming nightclub singer. Lise is engaged to another man, and Jerry is pursued by Milo, an American heiress and patron of the arts in Paris.

It’s a commonly told story, unfortunately made more generic by practically nonexistent character development. Each of the characters is presented in broad strokes, and third act revelations feel like cheap attempts to shade them in instead of epiphanies. Although Christopher Wheeldon’s direction is dynamic, making the most of what the plot offers, it can’t build to emotional resonance and doesn’t quite make up for the flaws inherent to the script.

The dancing is, of course, what many audience members are likely at the theater for, and it doesn’t disappoint. Admittedly, we are not experts of the ballet medium, but Wheeldon’s choreography is radiant, and the dancers are in top form. The final sequence is expressive and McGee Maddox as Jerry and Sara Esty as Lise share effortless grace to the stage when they dance together. As for performances, Etai Benson brings believable sorrow and heartache to the role of Adam in a largely non-dancing role and Nick Spangler succeeds in projecting conflict and uncomfortable growth in Henri’s character arc. Emily Ferranti is also charmingly brash as the wealthy Milo, and Sara Etsy clearly communicates Lise’s inner anguish around her decisions. It is instructive that some vocalists struggled to project and the strongest came from those with theater-centric backgrounds who did not also have extensive dancing duties (Benson, Spangler, Ferranti), as they were spared from having to constantly catch their breath.

Bob Crowley’s lavish sets and evocative costumes and Natasha Katz’s lighting designs lend themselves well to the production, and help highlight all the beauty on display. If you are a particular fan of old Hollywood romance or old-fashioned musicals, you may well enjoy the spectacle currently at the Ordway. It certainly was not an unpleasant evening at the theater. However, all the pretty in the world can’t make up for cliché characters and empty themes, which is why we were ultimately left a bit disappointed.

1 comment for “An American in Paris: a romantic spectacle lacking heart

  1. Rita Sanchez
    September 9, 2017 at 11:38 am

    A favorite of mine. I have seen it over and over on the screen. I built up great hopes for the day, dressing up early, and dinner with my husband at the Westgate. Almost everything else went downhill after that. The opening scene was extravagant and meaningful with the fall of the swastika and then Paris after the War. But the spirit and charm of the program went along with it. I kept waiting for something warm to happen, some passion to show, and then fell asleep despite the beautiful dancing. Maybe the attempt to replace the movie with something new is what caused this long awaited event to come up empty. Sadly, it replaced spirit, passion, personality, and charm. What was new seemed old, seeming like a common light opera. Modern costumes seemed less innovative than the past. Missed the tap of Gene Kelley, the spirit of Leslie Caron, and the witticism of Oscar Lavant. Do it over differently.

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