'An American In Paris' Puts On The Ritz With A Glittering Production At The Wang

The ensemble of "An American in Paris." (Courtesy Matthew Murphy/Citi Performing Arts Center)
The ensemble of "An American in Paris." (Courtesy Matthew Murphy/Citi Performing Arts Center)

They don’t make 'em like that anymore.

Or so you’re likely to exclaim after the last champagne-soaked notes of the surging, swinging nostalgia piece “An American in Paris” fade into an inevitable ovation. But the unrelentingly deft musical, pulsing with the music and words of George and Ira Gershwin, isn’t so much a loving re-immersion in the iconography of postwar Paris as it’s a gesture toward the nostalgia itself — a dance composed in response to a dance. Like a Beatles-aping Oasis song, it reminds us not of one thing in particular but of many things in general. We've seen this one before. We think.

Yes, it’s “inspired by” the 1951 musical film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, itself a pastiche of Gershwin tunes shaped into a standard-issue love story with George’s 1928 symphonic poem serving as soundtrack to a climactic ballet, introduced by rote as a dream sequence. But this 2015 incarnation, with book by Craig Lucas (“Prelude to a Kiss”), starts there and works into its story a foursome of aspiring-artist types all seeking to make their mark in the arts. And it doesn't head out the door for a black tie event before clearing its throat with a few gestures at café-life ruminations on the role of the artist in society and, you know, Frenchy stuff like that.

The recent Broadway hit closed on Oct. 9 and launches its life as a national tour with a Boston engagement at the appropriately ornate Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theatre, bringing its two leads with it. (The show runs through Nov. 6.)

"An American In Paris" is a crowd-pleasing spectacle that appeals with old-school romanticism, pulling you merrily along if you agree not to think too hard about it.

It boasts a terrific-sounding 13-piece orchestra (conducted by music director David Andrews Rogers) that polishes each bit of gilded swag adorning an unendingly satisfying score arranged and adapted from the Gershwins by Rob Fisher.

The ritzy set and costume design is by Bob Crowley, whose Tony Award (with collaborator 59 Productions) for "Paris" was his seventh in scenic design. The choreography, the valuable ore that gives ballast to this glittering production, is by dance-maker Christopher Wheeldon, who made his first foray into musical-theater direction with this show. (He was festooned with his own dual Tony nominations for those two jobs, winning for the dances.)

And there are also the versatile performers — 13 principals augmented by a busy 19-member ensemble stocked with ballet specialists, many following their director into a new-to-them performance form.

The story centers on … actually, who really cares? There’s a good-looking, tall American guy with ingratiating self-confidence who woos a French girl by promising to be "just friends," even though that's not what he intends. Their arc is based on the toxic — and nearly extinct, one hopes — storytelling convention in which it's the job of the entitled male to overpower the emphatically voiced objections of his female quarry. As out of tune as this (and, obtusely, two or three “What, is this guy gay or something?” jokes) is, we can choose to generously recognize it as just a trope of the genre. Mainly, we know the couple will definitely get together in the end because, you see, he’s good-looking and tall.

Sara Esty and Garen Scribner in "An American in Paris" at the Wang Theatre. (Courtesy Matthew Murphy/Citi Performing Arts Center)
Sara Esty and Garen Scribner in "An American in Paris" at the Wang Theatre. (Courtesy Matthew Murphy/Citi Performing Arts Center)

What we really care about is that Garen Scribner, as the American ex-soldier Jerry Mulligan, and Sara Esty as object of his affections (yes, object; he immediately re-names her, at his own insistence) Lise Dassin, are terrific dance partners. It’s in their series of ballets — occasionally, as with the stunning centerpiece of an 11 o’clock number, weaving from duet to ensemble piece and back again — that their story advances and romance blooms. Scribner and Etsy arrive in these roles straight from the end of the Broadway run, and I do declare that they should perform this piece together as long as they care to. It's a pleasure to watch them work with each other.

There’s also the swaggering, sort-of sad-sack Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson), an American composer who, like Mulligan, stuck around in Paris after the war. Nick Spangler is Henri Baurel, a rich-kid mama’s boy perpetually looking for the right words to propose to Lise. Emily Ferranti is the arts-patron socialite Milo Davenport, and Gayton Scott and Don Noble are understated but lovely as Henri’s stern parents.

There’s some business about the intrigues of the world of the arts and a newly commissioned ballet that brings the central personalities together, and Lucas tucks a few dark notes into the fringes of his book — a mob descending on a Nazi collaborator and swallowing her up, Adam and Jerry’s occasionally haunted remarks about the late war — but there’s not really quite enough there to count as a theme. We do seem to be headed toward an uncomfortable revelation about one character until things turn a different way entirely.

It turns out our job as audience members here isn’t to look for depth in these shallow characters, or truly be swayed by the unconvincing rom-com seduction story, or even to sit around and mull competing visions of the artist’s responsibility — whether showing the “dark underbelly of life” (as Adam has it) or simply doing the noble duty of entertaining.

The ensemble of "An American in Paris." (Courtesy Matthew Murphy/Citi Performing Arts Center)
The ensemble of "An American in Paris." (Courtesy Matthew Murphy/Citi Performing Arts Center)

We just go with the entertaining part. Among the many moments that have stayed with me after seeing the show include the “ 'S Wonderful” with Jerry, Adam and Henri each singing, separately, about their feelings for Lise; a haunting “But Not For Me” for which a similar device links the laments of Adam and Milo; and a stunning showpiece in which a Parisian after-hours bar is transformed, in a performer’s imagination, to Radio City Music Hall. (It’s no coincidence of casting that at least four ensemble members have performed in productions of “Radio City Christmas Spectacular.”)

Wheeldon really has crafted a masterpiece of dramatic choreography and staging here, as several numbers swing and swerve through set changes and montage effects, the stage bustling with activity one moment and cleared for a duet the next. Set pieces move about the stage in a dance of scenic design and stage management that flows in concert with the immensely expressive human dances that offer this show's richest rewards.

But "An American in Paris" doesn't converse with its influences so much as it pats them on the back and cries "bully for you." Which is enough to propel a night at the opera (or Broadway musical).

So you enjoy the pageant and hum along, and wonder from time to time if this is all really based on that movie you saw that one time — the one about hope, and love, and Paris.

Headshot of Jeremy D. Goodwin

Jeremy D. Goodwin Contributor, The ARTery
Jeremy D. Goodwin was a writer and critic for WBUR's The ARTery.



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