When Singin’ in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis were adapted from the silver screen to live-stage presentations, as successful as some may consider them to be, particularly for regional theatre audiences, they were essentially retreads of the film; Singin’ in the Rain was practically scene for scene. With the national touring production of An American in Paris, now playing at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, April 23, things are considerably different.
Alan Jay Lerner’s original 1951 screenplay for MGM was stripped by writer Craig Lucas, then re-worked from the ground up. The result is, frankly, totally surprising, and perhaps, even unusual for what is expected of a Broadway musical. The ‘51 Gene Kelly movie remains a classic, but this is not the film, and even though movie musical buffs may balk at the idea of change to what was, after all, an Academy Award winner, more power to it.
The central figure is still Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox), an American G.I. with a talent for painting, dancing, and singing, but change from screen to stage occurs from the beginning. Unlike the film, where the dust of the Second World War had already settled, and life in the City of Lights was sunny, bright, and idyllic French in a Hollywood sort-of-way, here, liberation from four years of Nazi occupation has just occurred, and as the show’s narrator, pianist Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson) tells us, it takes a while for a country to return to normal; change can never come overnight. Bread lines are still the order of the day, and those who collaborated with the enemy will soon find themselves subject to public Parisian retribution. The overall tone to the post-war setting is already considerably darker.
Extra weight is also given to characters and their motivations. Adam (last name changed from Cook to Hochburg for the show) isn’t simply a humorously cynical American pianist living in Paris. Like Mulligan, he’s now an army veteran, plus he’s saddled with a war wound, and wishing to remain in Europe as Paris begins the long process of rebuilding itself. There’s also a third character who will eventually complete the musical trio; Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler) who here is the son of two wealthy Parisian industrialists, Madame and Monsieur Baurel (Gayton Scott and Don Noble), two characters with a secret past, invented for the show; they were never part of the original film.
The plot revolving around three men in love with the same woman is also intact, and so is the Leslie Caron character of Lise (Sara Esty) though, again, there are changes. Lise’s last name is now altered from Bouvier to Dassin, and her character doesn’t simply sell upscale perfume; she’s a store assistant and, like her mother, an outstanding ballerina, which leads to this production’s biggest consequence of reassembling a movie classic: the ballet.
Director Christopher Wheeldon is an English choreographer of ballet who has created something spectacularly unusual for a musical production, a style seldom seen on a Broadway stage, or on a national tour, for that matter. While Gene Kelly’s original choreography incorporated his signature tap and showbiz movie musical flair, culminating with a memorable fantasy ballet sequence, the show presents a practically flawless presentation of the classic French art form – the word Ballet means to dance – and with professionally trained ballet dancers who can also sing and act making up the cast, the end result is mesmerizing.
At times, with the ever fluid movements of swirling bodies, arms, and legs, it’s like watching a dream continually unfolding to the music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin. There is no other form of dance that conveys the emotions of romantic love in quite the same way. Though occasionally, the show returns to reality between the songs and the fantasy sequences, not only reflecting the problems caused from the after effects of the war, but also the exacting demands of the dance and what is required of the dancers. When an instructor casually rejects a technically fine dancer with nothing more than an unconcerned, dismissive wave, she tells the young woman, “You are too tall. Go, be a skyscaper somewhere else.”
That allusion of a dream extends beyond the dance to all aspects of the production; sets, costumes, sound, and the Tony award-winning lighting and scenic designs, courtesy of Natasha Katz, Bob Crowley and 59 Productions, where either the riverbank along the Seine or the buildings of Paris appear to float down from above then assemble into one before us. At times the effect is somewhat reminiscent of film director Christopher Nolan’s dream within a dream in Interception where the city skyline either converges or falls apart. The overall effect is quite remarkable, particularly when those designs often appear to bathe the auditorium in strikingly clear, rich, primary colors.
Despite the artistic success of the 1951 film and its critical acclaim, in the fifties, not all audiences of Hollywood musicals warmed to the somewhat avant-garde An American in Paris in the way they did to the more conventional Singin’ in the Rain a few years later. Maybe it was because of the experimental approach in its presentation, incorporating the ballet as a prominent form of story-telling, and perhaps that may be the same for some present-day audiences going to the theatre. But don’t let this touring production slip you by. After a successful run on Broadway, the show has just opened in London’s West End to plaudits from both press and audiences alike, and it’s that same Christopher Wheeldon presentation you can now see on your doorstep in Tempe at ASU Gammage until the weekend. The show, like its leading lady, is radiant.
Pictures by Angela Sterling and Matthew Murphy