Review: An American in Paris

When you see the title – “An American in Paris” – you likely immediately think of the classic Gene Kelly film of the 1950s or the Gershwin composition of the same name. The national tour currently playing The Hobby Center and presented by Theatre Under the Stars is based on both but adds new story elements and songs, to mixed effect.

Based mostly on the 1951 film, this is the story of three men in love with the same woman. Jerry Mulligan (alternate Ryan Steele of “Newsies” fame at our performance) is a soldier who stays in Paris after the war to pursue his career as an artist. He randomly meets dancer Lise (Sara Esty) on the streets one day and falls for her. Little does he know that composer Adam (former “Wicked” star Etai Benson) and wanna-be singer Henri (“Book of Mormon” star Nick Spangler) are also courting her. The story follows the three of them, with Adam narrating, as they work towards their dreams and the inevitable moment when their shared passions will be revealed to all. There are several new “twists” or modern updates to the script, with some adding new layers while others fall flat. Some feels a bit heavy-handed, while one “twist” involving Lise works very well.

The show mostly follows the plot of the movie, with some new subplots added to the story and a slew of Gershwin hits (including “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “S’ Wonderful” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” sprinkled throughout the show. The songs work well, even if they don’t necessarily advance the plot in some cases. The real star here is the dancing, which is superb. It’s such a demanding role that both leads have alternates. Our performance featured the Jerry alternate Ryan Steele, while the show’s Broadway lead Garen Scribner plays the role six of eight performances a week. The part of Lise is played once a week by Sarah Esty’s twin-sister Leigh-Ann.

Ryan Steele, who originated the role of “Specs” in “Newsies” on Broadway, was outstanding as Jerry. His acting and singing were both fine, but his dancing was the star. Sara Esty was delightful as Lise, with her dancing pairing nicely with Steele, especially in their Act Two showstopper ballet “An American in Paris.” Etai Benson serves as narrator and brings both charm and heartbreak to Adam. Nick Spangler, a former winner of TV’s “The Amazing Race” is superb as Henri, bringing the biggest applause of the night during his showstopping number “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.” The rest of the cast does well, with the dancing again being a particular highlight.

The scenic design serves the piece well, with most of the sets being projections of Jerry’s artwork. Iconic Paris locations are “drawn” on the walls and flats as scenes change, with the detail filling in as the transition completes. The sound design, on the other hand, was a huge let down. TUTS seems to often have sound problems, and although this is a national tour, it did suffer from problems throughout the show. The main issue seemed to be the mix, which allowed the orchestra to drown out the actors frequently. This doesn’t happen as often at Broadway Across America shows so I’m not sure where the problem lies but it needs to be fixed. This is a lovely score full of Gershwin classics and it’s a shame to not be able to hear it clearly. That being said, the orchestra sounded great and the cast all had lovely voices (when they could be heard clearly).

Fans of the film will enjoy this version, while anyone who loves dance will certainly walk away happy.

***1/2 out of *****
“An American in Paris”
Music and lyrics by George Gershwin & Ira Gershwin
Book by Craig Lucas
Directed by Christopher Wheeldon
National Tour presented by Theatre Under the Stars – The Hobby Center
Now through March 5th
Tickets: www.tuts.com
Photo: Ryan Steele as Jerry Mulligan in the national tour of “An American in Paris” at Theatre Under the Stars

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