With the exception of a conductor, there’s no other role in theatre whose work relies solely on the performance of others – the director. Movies are different. Unless there’s studio interference, film remains a director’s medium. But not theatre. The director can guide the structure, coax a performance, and block the moves, but once that curtain rises, the actors take over. A film director can make an actor look good. In theatre, an actor can make the director look good.
So how can you judge? Ordinarily, you can’t. When a reviewer writes of seeing ‘brilliant’ direction, beware. But when the director is also the choreographer, the game changes. With Arizona Broadway Theatre’s new production of An American in Paris, now playing in Peoria until March 1, the director is also the choreographer. While praise or criticism can still fall to others, ultimately it’s the director/choreographer that rules. In a case where much of the show is interpreted through dance as it is here, specifically ballet, the success of the piece rests squarely on the shoulders of the one in charge. In this case, it’s Kurtis Overby.
When the show first opened on Broadway in 2014 it was clear that An American in Paris the musical play was not so much based on the 1951 MGM movie, it was inspired by it. It had the same title and the story arc of three men in Paris in love with the same woman remained the central focus, but much was restructured. In fact, writer Craig Lucas took the film’s screenplay and re-worked the whole thing from the beginning.
Instead of taking place in the early fifties, which was present-day when the film was released, here things begin the moment France is liberated from Nazi Germany. At the opening, swastikas hang from above. As the show’s narrator, pianist Adam Hochberg (Michael O’Brien in the role made famous by Oscar Levant) tells us, France may now no longer be under foreign occupation, but after four years, it takes time for a country to get back on its feet. Nothing changes overnight. Parisians are still suffering, there are still bread lines, and collaborators are shown little mercy by the crowds.
Rather than return home, American G.I. with a talent for sketching and painting, Jerry Mulligan (Andrew Ruggieri in the Gene Kelly role) decides to remain in Paris while the city rebuilds itself. Once he sets up residence, he befriends both pianist Adam, another American, plus the son of two wealthy Parisian industrialists, Henri Baurel (Michael Brennan). His parents have a past they would rather not discuss. The characters of Monsieur and Madame Baurel (respectively, Christopher Cody Cooley and Carolyn McPhee) were never in the film; their roles were created specifically for the show.
In the middle is Lise (Rebecca Shulla in the Leslie Caron role) though interestingly, the show’s creators changed her last name from Bouvier to Dassin. Lise is both an aspiring ballerina and the subject of the three young men’s affections. The conflicts plus a sense of mystery revolve around who will eventually win Lise’s heart – as if that was ever in doubt – and the murky connections between Lise and her upbringing with the Baurels. And to make matters more complicated for Jerry, there’s the involvement of American philanthropist Milo Davenport (Beatrice Crosbie) whose interest in the American G.I. may be more than just his ability as an artist.
The George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin songs are sublime; all well staged and extremely well sung. Memorable hits of the day include I Got Rhythm which comes shortly after the three men first meet each other and a friendship bonds. I’ve Got Beginners’ Luck is sung by Jerry expressing his good fortune at having met Lise, and S’Wonderful sung by Jerry, Henri, and Adam unaware they’re singing about the same woman.
Curiously, MGM execs wanted the ballet sequence dropped believing audiences wouldn’t respond favorably. They were right to a degree. Despite winning four academy awards, audiences didn’t take to the film in the way they did other popular MGM musicals of the day, even if younger film historians who weren’t around when the film was released tend to revise movie history with a more favorable look. Reviewers thought it too fancy and overblown. After all, not everyone takes to ballet, even if they’re a fan of dance. Yet in the way the film ultimately became a prestige picture for the studio, the same can be said for this handsome ABT production. Once it completes its dinner theatre run in Peoria, the show moves further south and opens March 8 until 24 at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix. While the ballet in the film with its backdrop designed in the styles of Renoir, van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec may have felt to some (not me) as too florid, in the musical play, it’s the production’s reason-to-be. Which circles us back to director/choreographer Kurtis Overby.
As a director coaxing performances, not all his actors persuade. O’Brien’s narration is delivered on an inexpressive one-note (though he shines during a later scene when tempers rise, plus his singing is excellent). As the American of the title, while Andrew Ruggieri’s singing and dancing are outstanding, no sparks fly between his character and Rebecca Shulla’s engaging Lise; he’s going through the motions of a man in love with a woman, just as the script requires, but there’s no real sense of romance. Only Carolyn McPhee as Mme. Baurel convinces. Though the character is on stage for a lesser amount of time, when she speaks, her delivery is always authentic. But as a choreographer, Overby excels, and it’s here where the real success of the production rests.
Much of what happens is interpreted by dance. There’s confusion during the opening. With no scene-setting backscreen projection or animation to let us know that once those swastikas are torn down they’re replaced by France’s own flag, or that Jerry is standing before the Arc de Triomphe and allied planes fly overhead (he’s looking at a large, blank screen; we hear the noise of something that makes him glance up with a huge smile but unless you already know the show, you might not know what it is that captures his attention) it’s not initially clear what the dance is implying. But once a female French collaborator with a swastika armband and cropped hair enters and is dragged off by the mob, things fall into place. Like those planes we can’t see but hear, from there the show takes flight.
Overby’s choreography performed by the fluid movement of a good ensemble creates a dreamlike effect that the average Broadway musical rarely achieves or even attempts, probably for the same reason those MGM execs wanted the ballet cut from their movie. It’s not what you expect in musical theatre, and certainly not in a regional musical theatre. Occasionally you’ll enjoy a production where the real star of the show is the one you never see, the guy behind the scenes calling the shots. With ABT’s An American in Paris, the star you don’t see but is deserving of the applause is director/choreographer Kurtis Overby.
ABT’s An American in Paris runs until March 1 in Peoria then moves to Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix, performing from March 8 until March 24
Pictures Courtesy of Scott Samplin