CLO’s ‘An American in Paris’ at Benedum: ‘S Wonderful’

'An American in Paris' touring company in the French bistro. photo: Matthew Murphy.

‘An American in Paris’ touring company in the French bistro.

When I saw that CLO Pittsburgh and PNC Broadway were co-presenting the musical An American in Paris I thought that it should be a good one. After all it was inspired by the 1951 Academy Award-winning film of the same name. The movie (and musical) features a score and lyrics by genius composers, the brothers George and Ira Gershwin. You may remember a little tune George Gershwin wrote called “Rhapsody in Blue.” United Airlines even used a part of it for their TV commercials for many years. There’s also the memorable songs “I Got Rhythm” and “S Wonderful.”

I also figured that the stage musical would have some fine dancing, since the film had many outstanding dance scenes featuring phenomenal hoofer and Pittsburgh guy done good, Gene Kelly. After seeing the musical it looks like I was right on both accounts. The acting and singing were top-notch as well. However, the aspect that I wasn’t expecting was the fantastic set design and staging of the piece.

Setting the Stage

For this production of An American in Paris there were projected artistic scenes of Paris buildings, monuments, the night sky, even the river Seine with a couple of boats in it, and Radio City Music Hall. Much of the artwork was rendered onto video which allowed for the motion of the clouds passing by or twinkling stars in the night. It gave the production a richer texture. Other times, various graphic designs were projected to set the mood or further emphasize the nature of a scene. The designer used rich, inspiring hues.

Another dimension of the set were movable flat surfaces, almost like big dressing mirrors, that were moved around with great synchronization in such a way that the people moving them and the objects were another set of dancers. These surfaces also had various images and designs projected onto them and was remarkable.

That’s fine that the staging was so impressive, but if the acting, singing, and dancing of a musical are not good it’s like having a beautifully wrapped present with a cheap gift inside. I’m happy to say that was not the case with the touring company of An American in Paris.

Plotting for Lise

The story follows young U.S. Army officer Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox) who decides to stay in Paris after World War II has ended. He wants to expand on the sketching and painting that he did during the war and establish himself on the Paris art scene. The musical opens with him walking through Paris looking at the still beautiful city as it and its people try to recover from the war. The stroll is set to the lovely “Concerto in F.”

Jerry eventually goes into a bistro and strikes up a fast friendship with piano player Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson) who is also an American and a former GI. Jerry wants a cup of coffee, but Adam says it’s too early for coffee and pours him a glass of champagne. (There is some nice humor throughout the show). This scene then segues into the song and dance number “I Got Rhythm,” with the whole ensemble contributing.

"The Three Musketeers" of post-war Paris" (l. to r.): Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler), Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox), and Adam Hochberg ( Etai Benson).

‘The Three Musketeers’ of post-war Paris (l. to r.): Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler), Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox), and Adam Hochberg ( Etai Benson).

It turns out that Adam is helping a rich patron, Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler), work on his acting and performing routine. Jerry, Adam, and Henri become the three main male characters of the musical, and the actor/singers all did a bang-up job with Benson and Spangler contributing some funny lines throughout.

Meanwhile, Jerry meets American socialite and heiress Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti) who is interested in his art, and him. Adam is playing piano compositions for a ballet that Milo is associated with, and invites Jerry along to sketch the dancers. While at the ballet Jerry sees a captivating young French woman, Lise Dassin (Sara Esty), who is auditioning for the ballet. Jerry had glimpsed her earlier while strolling the streets: Lise works in a department store, wants to be a ballerina, and has a mysterious background. Adam helps her succeed at the audition after a bad start and begins falling for her, while Jerry is also trying to woo her. Milo, who’s also in attendance, likes the dancing of Lise and insists she be cast in the production and that Jerry design the production. The ballet owners offer some resistance but finally acquiesce.

Lise (Sarah Esty), far left, auditions for the ballet in front of the large mirrors.

Lise (Sarah Esty), far left, auditions for the ballet in front of the large mirrors.

Jerry visits Lise at the department store and professes his love for her in “Beginner’s Luck.” His dance leaps from one department-store countertop to another are amazing. One missed leap and he could be injured. This is a fun scene complete with some umbrella dancing and the store manager trying to regain order. Jerry does get Lise to meet him at the bank of the Seine where they eventually start having fun.

Another humorous part comes when Henri, at the behest of his mother and father, proposes engagement in a letter to Lise, whom they have sheltered during the war. He’s trying to write a deep letter of love, but his phrasing keeps going wrong. Adam stumbles too, when trying to compliment Lise, by inadvertently calling her a “prized pig.” Meanwhile, Lise is imagining love as well, although with no one specifically, in the beautiful song “The Man I Love.”

All three men (maybe just two) are in love with her, unbeknownst to each other. This makes not a love triangle, but a love quadrangle. In the scene “S Wonderful” they are all singing about the woman that they love without realizing they’re singing about the same person. The first act ends with the dance and music dazzler, “Second Rhapsody/Cuban Overture.” The projected colors and graphic art during this number were especially pleasing.

The second act is where things come to a head, with each—Jerry, Adam, and Henri—discovering that they are all in love with Lise and each one recalculating his path. Another fun number is “Fidgety Feet,” where Jerry is seated at a ballet performance but his feet just can’t stay still, which leads to some chair dancing and other moves. The rest of the ballet’s audience also catch the “Fidgety Feet” contagion and join along.

Dreams Imagined

Henri singing "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise."

Henri singing ‘I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.’

An interesting visual effect is in “I’ll build You a Stairway to Paradise” when Adam imagines playing in front of a big crowd at Radio City Musical Hall. The stage is set with him at the rear of the Benedum stage and facing the stage as if he’s conducting from an orchestra pit. The Benedum audience’s view is as if they are at the rear of the Radio City stage looking out at the Radio City audience. Performers initially stand with their back to the Benedum audience while performing to Adam’s music to give it the full visual effect. This is similar to an impactful performance scene in the play “Jersey Boys.” Eventually the performers turn around and it becomes a big ensemble piece replete with feather-fan-toting chorus girls.

Jerry and Lise perform a splendid dance in the "An American in Paris" scene.

Jerry and Lise perform a splendid dance in the ‘An American in Paris’ scene.

The musical veers off from the movie in certain parts while still paying homage to it. One place that it remains especially true is in the elaborate, 17-minute dance sequence for the scene “An American in Paris.” The beautifully choreographed ensemble dance number floats on top of a signature musical piece for the whole production, titled (of course) “An American in Paris.” George Gershwin wrote it as a musical tone poem, which he started composing while in Paris studying under noted French composer Maurice Ravel in 1926. Gershwin’s intent was to reflect an American’s experience in Paris, seeing and hearing new sights and sounds, and occasionally remembering his fondness for the U.S. It is one of Gershwin’s best known pieces.

Bravo!

An American in Paris works on several different levels. The songs by George and Ira Gershwin are brilliant and the music was played exceptionally well by the show’s orchestra. Christopher Wheeldon, noted ballet choreographer, directs and choreographs An American in Paris so that it is beautifully done and keeps a good pace. The book by Craig Lucas keeps the story interesting and sets up the song and dance numbers well. Set and costume designs by Bob Crowley were wonderful as was the lighting by Natasha Katz. The U.K.’s 59 Productions did spectacular video art projections for the play.

It’s sometimes hard to find actors who can not only sing but also dance well. An American in Paris found a great bunch who are triple talents including Maddox, Esty, Benson, Spangler, and Ferrarnti. Maddox is a former Principal Dancer for the National Ballet of Canada and Esty once was a soloist for the Miami City Ballet. Both have extensive dancing and acting experience and it shows. The other actors all performed well too, including Gayton Scott (Madame Baurel) and Don Noble (Monsieur Baurel).

Surprisingly, a stage adaptation of An American in Paris had never been done until recently. Pittsburgh CLO was the lead producer in creating the show for an original run on Broadway, in collaboration with Elephant Eye Theatricals and Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. The musical premiered in December 2014 at the Théâtre du Châtelet and then at the Palace Theatre on Broadway in April 2015. An American in Paris has won four 2015 Tonys, four Drama Desk awards, and was included on many publications’ best theatrical productions lists. The musical ended its Broadway run in 2016 after 600 performances. An American in Paris has made tour stops in Boston in 2016 and opened a production in the West end of London this March.

Both the film An American in Paris and now the stage production took risks in creating something that was innovative, fun, and artful. It is good to see these risks being rewarded with the recognition that the piece rightfully deserves. There is something for everyone in it and it is a fun experience.

An American in Paris is on stage at the Benedum Center through June 11. For tickets and more information visit the Pittsburgh CLO website or call 412-281-2822.

Photos courtesy of Matthew Murphy and Pittsburgh CLO.

Rick Handler is executive producer of Entertainment Central and enjoys good theater.