By Bryson David Hoff
Has any composer had more posthumous “new musicals” than George Gershwin? In the 80 years since his death, four original musicals proudly bearing his name have premiered on Broadway. Most writers don’t enjoy that kind of success and creative output during their lives.
This is a joke, of course. The previous three: My One and Only, Crazy For You, and Nice Work If You Can Get It are all jukebox musicals created by cutting and pasting hit Gershwin songs on top of a new book. How fitting, then, that the most recent “New Gershwin Musical” is a stage adaptation of one of the first Gershwin rehashes, the MGM film An American in Paris.
In a way, bringing the 1951 movie to the stage seems like something that should have happened well before the 2015 Broadway production that spawned this current national tour. The sheer spectacle of the film should and does work splendidly on stage, due not only to the virtuosity of the dancers performing Tony-Award-winning choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, but to the brilliantly realized sets designed by Bob Crowley, lighting by Natasha Katz, and, most strikingly, projects created by 59 Productions. The aesthetic matches the glamour of the film without feeling like it’s simply trying to recreate it on stage. The projection work is particularly evocative, creating the streets of Paris as pages of a sketchbook writ large.
The bones of the plot remain the same as the movie: American World War II veteran and aspiring painter Jerry (McGee Maddox) decides to remain in Paris after VE Day. While there, he becomes infatuated with a young French woman named Lise (Sara Esty) who is engaged to a struggling French singer named Henri (Nick Spangler). The ensuing complications from this love triangle leads him down a path of having to choose between success and love with more than a few digressions into opulent song and dance numbers along the way.
The cast’s dance chops are unquestionable, with the two leads boasting an impressive balletic pedigree. The vocal performances are serviceable, although the show isn’t really built for showing off the singing. Dance is the centerpiece here, and the whole production is built to show it off, which it does with aplomb.
It is also to the piece’s credit that from a plot standpoint, it does seem to have greater artistic ambitions than its source. Coming only six years after the end of World War II, the film was an unabashed piece of escapism for an audience that was only just starting the put itself back together after what must have felt like a narrowly averted apocalypse. The adaptation attempts to deal with these realities in a way that the original did not; Jerry and fellow ex-pat Adam (Etai Benson) have scars both physical and emotional from the horrors that they’ve experienced, French characters are haunted by the choices they were forced to make and the national trauma of having lived under the Nazi occupation. This makes the middle portion of the play a surprisingly deep experience as more of these facts about the characters come to light. There’s even a mystery of sorts that drives the plot in a surprisingly intelligent way.
However, there is an undeniable issue when the plot is forced to conform to the same end structure as the film, which was a much less complex story than the one presented here. The result is less than satisfying and feels like a bit of a cop-out, a recapitulation to the expected tropes of the genre after a very engaging digression to examine the realities of the situation in which the characters find themselves.
So the question becomes whether it is better to shoot for pure spectacle and paint the world in broad, bright pastel strokes, as the original did, or to inject it with some of the darkness to make the aesthetic beauty shine that much more brightly, even if that added darkness seems to call for a more nuanced conclusion than a musical romance can deliver while staying on theme. The answer is a matter of individual taste, up to each audience member to decide.
Broadway in Chicago presents “An American in Paris” through August 13 at The Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph St, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.