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Hailed as a comeback for dance in musical theater, the arrival of An American in Paris and acclaimed director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon on Broadway in March 2015 was a breath of springtime air in other ways too. The cast of classically trained ballet dancers could somehow — almost magically — sing as splendidly as many Broadway veterans. And they could act. And tell jokes!
Meanwhile, between their lighter-than-air leaps, there was also another visual bounty: sets that appeared to float, a river that actually rippled and costumes that transported audiences straight back to the 1951 Oscar-winning movie on which this stage musical is based, director Vincente Minnelli’s masterpiece starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.
The touring production now at the Pantages through April 9 continues the magic of its 18-month Broadway run, which landed 12 Tony nominations, winning for choreography, scenic design, lighting and orchestrations. Ascending to the leading roles of Jerry and Lise are original ensemble members Garen Scribner and Sara Esty, former soloists with the San Francisco Ballet and Miami City Ballet, respectively. Both had been alternates in the starring roles on Broadway, and their experience shows.
Graceful and assured, they are a winning romantic pair — but not before overthrowing the usual Broadway barricades. Jerry, the American ex-G.I. now a painter on the post-World War II Paris art scene, is not the only man who aches for Lise. There’s also the show’s lovelorn narrator Adam, a wonderful turn from Etai Benson as the composer who sheds his nebbishy persona when he brings the brilliant Gershwin score to life. And there’s the occasionally dashing Henri (Nick Spangler), a sensitive textile heir who yearns to be a song-and-dance man against his parents’ wishes.
All the men are artists with a message for the world, as resonant today as it was back then: If you can create something of beauty, don’t hold back.
Lise, our ballerina and shopgirl with a secret past, sets the story in motion when she wows at a dance audition. Pushy philanthropist Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti) is so moved she wants to fund a new ballet in which Lise will star, also creating a canvas for Jerry’s scenic art and Adam’s music. These contrivances and other weaknesses in the book by Craig Lucas are forgiven, as the show adroitly depicts 1940s Paris awakening from war, its hungover citizens both exhausted and exhilarated.
This is most apparent when Jerry cartwheels over a park bench on the banks of the Seine. Bounding into thin air with hang-time for days, his optimism soars through Wheeldon’s sublime choreography. Scribner, wisely channeling Kelly’s macho charms only in spurts, places his own stamp on the role with glorious grand jetes and a fine singing voice.
Esty, too, is a marvel, putting over her big vocal number — “The Man I Love” — as if she’d trained all her life for a music career instead. With her adorable chic bob she looks a bit like Caron, but overall seems sprung from the serene DNA of Audrey Hepburn. Who knew there were so many multifaceted performers in the ranks of America’s finest ballet companies?
The show’s stand-out voice belongs to Spangler, whose Henri takes “I Got Rhythm” from elegy to party anthem as the three men cement their friendship. His singing is the saving grace of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” an ornate fantasy in which the Pantages transforms into Radio City Music Hall, complete with dancers in shimmering bikinis and feather boas. But the so-so tapping is the one weak dance link here, and the result is not quite the showstopper it should be.
Redemption follows, however, with the evening’s emotional centerpiece, the “American In Paris” ballet — an 18-minute show-within-a-show set to the familiar George Gershwin orchestral composition, with its bold jazz influences and Paris taxi horns. Set against designer Bob Crowley’s modernist costumes and nuanced set, the piece seemed to transport Thursday’s opening-night audience to another place and time.
The length, detail and sheer scope of that stand-alone ballet place it among the most demanding Broadway dance numbers ever staged. To allow the leads some relief, ensemble member Ryan Steele steps in for Scribner at some matinees and Sunday shows, and for Esty what more perfect sub could there be than her own twin sister, Leigh-Ann Esty, also of Miami City Ballet.
Rounding out all this greatness are additional Gershwin classics — “‘S Wonderful,” “But Not for Me” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” — plus stunning visual effects created by 59 Productions, which permit the whole thing to be pulled off with a minimalist twist. Barring a trip across the Atlantic, there’s probably no better way to visit Paris this spring.
The North American tour continues through July 1, 2018, stopping next in Las Vegas from April 11-16. A London production recently opened at the West End’s Dominion Theatre, starring original Broadway leads Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope.
Venue: Pantages Theatre, Los Angeles
Cast: Garen Scribner, Sara Esty, Etai Benson, Emily Ferranti, Gayton Scott, Nick Spangler, Ryan Steele, Leigh-Ann Esty
Director-choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon
Music & lyrics: George and Ira Gershwin
Book: Craig Lucas, inspired by the movie
Set & costume designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Jon Weston
Projection designer: 59 Productions
Music director: David Andrews Rogers
Orchestrations: Christopher Austin and Bill Elliott
Musical score adaptation, arrangement & supervision: Rob Fisher
Presented by Stuart Oken, Van Kaplan, Roy Furman, Troika Entertainment, Stephanie P. McClelland, Darren Bagert, Carole L. Haber, James Nederlander, Five Cent Productions, Michael Leavitt, Apples and Oranges Studios/Dominion Pictures, Simone Genatt Haft/Marc Routh, Triptyk Studios/SBR Productions, Ed Walson/Peter May, Michael Strunsky/The Leonore S. Gershwin Trust, Adam Zotovich/Celia Atkin, Arch Road/Eugene Beard/Julie Boardman, Ciaola Productions/Stuart Ditsky/Kallish-Weinstein, Suzanne Friedman/IPN/Proctors, Sandy Robertson/Deborah Taylor/Wonderful Productions, Harriet Newman Leve/Jane Dubin/Sarahbeth Grossman, Jennifer Isaacson/Raise the Curtain, by special arrangement with Elephant Eye Theatrical & Pittsburgh CLO and Theatre du Chatelet
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