Even though the vast majority of musicals contain some kind of dancing, the choreographed movements of the cast are most often used as an enhancement of the songs and story. It’s a rare production that attempts to tell even part of the story strictly through dancing, let alone a huge chunk of it.
In that way alone, An American in Paris is a standout. Presented as part of the Theatre Under the Stars spring season, the show is both a highly conventional and unconventional production. It follows the journey of American GI Jerry Mulligan (Ryan Steele), who decides to stay in Paris after World War II to pursue his art. His desire to remain there is greatly enhanced when he meets Lise Dassin (Sara Esty), a ballet dancer looking for her big break.
Jerry is far from the only one pursuing Lise, however. She also catches the eye of Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson), an American pianist/composer and former GI who accompanies the local ballet troupe, and Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler), a wealthy Frenchman who has designs on becoming a singer and also hides a history with Lise. Add in Jerry also drawing the attention of young and vivacious arts benefactor Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti), and the story is the rarely found love hexagon.
Based on the 1951 Oscar-winning film of the same name, the 2015 Tony Award-winning musical is set to the music of George and Ira Gershwin, including songs like “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “Liza,” “S’Wonderful,” and “But Not for Me.” The classic music sets the tone for the production, but in a truly unusual occurrence for a Broadway show — at least in modern times — it’s the dancing that is showcased the most.
On multiple occasions, singing gives way to extended dance sequences, highlighting not just the abilities of the person playing the actual ballerina, but of the entire cast. These include dream sequences in which characters fantasize about things they have yet to realize in their real lives. For long periods, sometimes reaching 10 minutes or longer, the audience is transported into a reverie full of enchanting ballet that also advances the story.
In choosing this method, director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and book writer Craig Lucas have trusted in the ability of their story to shine through despite the lack of words. Storytellers often feel the need to lead us by the nose, but Wheeldon and Lucas give the audience credit for having intelligence. They have crafted a production that makes perfect sense because of its sheer beauty and the skills of its performers.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, Ryan Steele, who was scheduled to take the role of Jerry in the weekend matinees of the TUTS run, alternating with the usual Garen Scribner, has had to step into the role for the past two evening performances. As written by Craig Lucas, Jerry’s love at first sight for the enigmatic Lise becomes a bit obsessive, and Steele can’t quite add enough charm to the character to lighten Jerry’s occasional stalker tendencies. In scenes alone together talking, the characters become the least interesting in the show, but oh when Steele and Esty dance together, their love seems very real.
The supporting cast add layers of nuance to this almost-too-many-sided love story. Benson, as the narrating composer Hochberg, uses a limp, a New York accent, and his naturally short stature to great effect, stealing many of the scenes he’s in. As Jerry’s rival for Lise’s love, Henri Baurel at first seems like lightweight comic relief, but writer Lucas and actor Spangler give him such great depth that we might want to offer Lise some relationship advice. Emily Ferranti performance as Milo Davenport even manages to give snooty, American rich girls a good name.
Also of note is Bob Crowley's set design, which utilizes a series of projections to create an immersive Parisian landscape and a fantastical dream world. Wheeldon's seamless choreography moves different set pieces around the stage, showcasing the wonderful dancing even more.
Any fan of musical theater should make it a point to see An American in Paris. It’s a remarkable experience that shows that the art of storytelling can be accomplished in many different ways.
An American in Paris runs through March 5 at the Hobby Center. CultureMap arts writer Tarra Gaines contributed to this review.