On the first day of this new decade, a clarinet’s call rang out over a bed of horns: George Gershwin‘s “Rhapsody in Blue” entered the public domain.
As that songbook is swallowed up note by note and made free for all to access, what will become of that little big Broadway niche known as the “new Gershwin musical?” Those charmed places
Assuming the worst—not even a single Gershwin mashup, remix, or reinvention—we at least have An American in Paris as an eminently graceful swan song that does something new with this old and vital music in its own way.
“New Gershwin musicals” are typically exuberant affairs, and Paris’s source, the MGM film of the same name from 1951, is no exception. But here, there’s always a low blue note playing underneath. No Freed Unit pristineness here; Bookwriter Craig Lucas shifts us back a few years, directly after the Liberation of Paris in 1945. True, a joyous occasion, but electricity was spotty in the City of Lights, breadlines were long, and its citizens’ nerves were frayed. (Scenic designer Kevin Depinet‘s tabs, made of ancient advertisements from happier times, are tattered and singed to underscore the point.)
And true, “new Gershwin musicals” take advantage of the brothers’ biggest hits, perhaps peppered with some obscure surprises, so ex-GIs-turned-artistes Jerry (Josh Drake) and Adam (Skyler Adams), joined by upper-crust pal Henri (Will Skrip), of course get their pick of the best of the best: “I Got Rhythm, ‘S Wonderful,” “Stairway to Paradise.” But here, what drives them to song is also what stops them dead. An American in Paris might just be the first musical to tackle post-traumatic stress. The familiar music softens the blows. (And under Music Director Chris Sargent‘s baton, this music’s aces.)
And true, “new Gershwin musicals” must have a snappy dance break or three. But Director-Choreographer Lynne Kurdziel-Formato‘s vision of Paris is unstoppable, and she weaves tableau after tableau, dancing all the way from the street cafés to the shores of the Seine. She also has a secret weapon: Leigh-Ann Esty as Lise Dassin, the reticent dancer at the center of those three men who would rather keep her head down and feet on the ground. She played the role on the national tour, and is even more arresting in the closer confines of Drury Lane. Her climactic ballet, wherein she blossoms as a prima ballerina, is a stunner, at turns red-hot, white-cool, and blue-longing.
And truem “new Gershwin musicals” should have romance to spare. Nothing different about that here. Paris—even tetchy, rubble-strewn Paris—is a city of reinvention and rediscovery. The chance for romance — for love, or just to put a little light back in the world—is open to all.
Phooey, “But Not For Me.” It’s fair game for everybody. Nice work, too.
“An American in Paris” plays through March 29 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. More information and tickets are available here.