“Life is not like your American movies,” says Lise, a ballerina who has captured the hearts of three men.
“Why not?” asks one of those men, Jerry, an American soldier turned painter in Paris at war’s end in 1945.
That question is the emotional core of the utterly charming, Tony winning musical An American in Paris. Jerry’s rivals for Lise’s affection are an American composer, Adam, who was also a soldier and bears a bad limp as a battlefield souvenir, and Henri, the scion of a wealthy French textile family who dreams of being a tuxedoed song and dance man in America. In a France recovering from the Nazis’ occupation and still tense with political suspicion, should art—whether music, dance, or painting—be a sober reflection of ugly 20th-century realities or an escape into romantic fantasies? The former, says Adam, while his friends incline toward the latter.
That central quandary gives the romantic fantasy of Craig Lucas’s script extra weight and the bitter postwar realities extra pathos. Inspired by the 1951 Vincente Minelli film, which was in turn inspired by Gershwin’s 1928 orchestral work by the same name, Lucas constructs the story around a variety of Gershwin orchestral snippets and songs by George and his lyricist brother, Ira.
The plot’s pivots—switched notebooks, overheard confessions, and the like—are a tad conspicuous. But the story’s placement in an artists’ quasi-fantasia ushers us past them. Add Gershwin’s unforgettable score; superb choreography and direction by Christopher Wheeldon; exceedingly clever sets and projections by Bob Crowley and 59 Productions, respectively; and comely, playful costumes by Crowley, and, well, who could ask for anything more?
McGee Maddox is a winning Jerry with a big, warm voice and a casually carried balletic virtuosity. Allison Walsh is lovely and mysterious as Lise. Her dancing is impassioned; her singing less so, but her vocal solo exposure is minimal and she carries it off with an inconspicuous directness.
Michael Scott as Adam is splendid. The character’s dour, self-effacing humor is shed to great effect in a song-and-dance fantasy sequence, and Scott’s powerful voice is unleashed in the poignant “But Not for Me.” Ben Michael is an amiable Henri, trying to bridge artistic, personal, and perhaps sexual divides. And Kirsten Scott is a vivacious and calculating Milo Davenport, a wealthy American out to buy cultural prominence and romantic satisfaction.
The ensemble becomes not just a credible but a remarkable dance company in Wheeldon’s Act II extended ballet sequence. Some extra “Fidgety Feet,” in the number by that name, overturned a chair. But that’s trivial. Less easily forgiven are the overly thick, uneven French accents of Lise, Henri, and his parents. Perhaps a dialect coach can do some rehab work during the production’s run.
An American in Paris
closes January 7, 2018
Details and tickets
The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra is complemented by the An American in Paris Orchestra—several keyboard players and a trumpeter—under the direction of David Andrews Rogers, and it sounds crisp in the orchestral suites and lithe and lyrical in the dance tunes.
I loved this show in its 2015 Broadway version and I love it still.
An American in Paris. Music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin; book by Craig Lucas; directed by Christopher Wheeldon; set and costume design by Bob Crowley; musical score adapted, arranged, and supervised by Rob Fisher. Presented by The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.
Note: Going to the 7:30 p.m. show on New Year’s Eve? Your ticket also includes the Kennedy Center Grand Foyer Party, with festive dancing to great bands, a countdown to midnight, a big balloon drop, and more.