Dallas — The recent changes at Dallas Summer Musicals seem to have paid off, judging by next season’s stellar lineup and the organization’s astonishing acquisition of Hamilton. After a few years of simply respectable seasons which included some dazzlers, the anticipation of things to come has already generated so much excitement that it might be easy to brush off the current year’s relatively tepid offerings.
But not so fast. One of the most-awarded Broadway musicals of 2015 jetés into the Music Hall at Fair Park (with a run at Bass Performance Hall after), and it’s one that will exceed your expectations. Directed and choreographed by ballet superstar Christopher Wheeldon, An American in Paris delivers a brilliant cast, a heartwarming story, swingin’ music, luscious visuals, and dancing that will leave you awestruck.
Branded as “A New Musical” with book by Craig Lucas, the show is inspired by the 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, but it’s anything but a screen-to-stage adaptation. Using much of the music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin (adapted by Rob Fisher), the musical borrows scenario and character elements, but the story varies enough to present a fresh take on a cinema classic.
Set in Paris immediately following World War II, the narrative follows American soldiers Jerry Mulligan (Garen Scribner) and Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson) who stay in the city after the end of the war. A painter and composer respectively, they befriend wealthy Frenchman Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler) and all become involved in the production of a new ballet, including falling in love with the lead, Lise Dassin (Sara Esty).
What is her mysterious past? Who will she choose? Will the Frenchman follow his dreams? What is the importance of art in a world ravaged by evil and atrocities?
Suffice to say that dancing—glorious, glorious dancing!—is central to the unraveling of these enigmas. Moving to the sounds of a live orchestra conducted by David Andrews Rogers, the two leads and a phenomenal 20-member ensemble deliver the best dancing seen on the DSM stage. Ballet, jazz, ballroom, and even some tap (it is based on a Gene Kelly film, after all) explode with passion, precision, and perfection.
A meticulously executed attitude turn within moments of the curtain rising hints at the talent to come. The majority of the first act actually feels like a dance concert with some singing and text woven through. Local ballet fans have slowly been introduced to Wheeldon’s style, thanks to TITAS and Texas Ballet Theater, so the maneuvers and patterns are not exactly a surprise. But to see it within this context proves breathtaking, nonetheless.
With intricate leaps, effortless lifts, enviable extensions, never-ending turns, and hints of old-school musical theater movement, choreography and staging could easily take up an entire review. The closing ballet set to the titular song is alone worth the trip. Sam Davis provides the staging for the more traditional theatrical dances, including the first lyrical music segment “I Got Rhythm” and the lively chair number “Fidgety Feet.”
With such demanding choreography, especially in the ballet segments, not just any cast will do. No one can hide behind the stronger dancers, and corners cannot be cut. Everyone must have top-notch technique and flawless execution, in addition to the charisma required of a Broadway show. This cast not only rises to that challenge, they surpass it.
Garen Scribner is the best performer to grace the Music Hall. A former soloist with the San Francisco Ballet and former member of Nederlands Dance Theater, his unmatched vibrancy, exquisite stage presence, exuberant vocals, and impeccable technique make him an incredible triple threat. He’s the perfect cross between Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.
Esty plays the coy, mysterious woman to a T, sometimes even growing so aloof that her performance seems stunted, but she comes alive in her dancing (en pointe, of course). She doesn’t have a large amount of singing (as this is not a vocal-heavy show), but her moments are charming, delicate.
Even though dancing is the focus, the non-moving performances (and those that have limited choreography) shine just as bright.
Gayton Scott and Don Noble as Henri’s polished parents convey a humorously exaggerated stoicism, and Spangler (Book of Mormon Broadway alum) delights with his optimism yet can easily handle the heavier moments of Act II.
Benson’s portrayal of the cynical, moping artist is perhaps the most touching. Tending towards dreariness due to the effects of war, his change of heart follows with a shift to a more uplifting aesthetic, and he delivers the most poignant line of the show: “Life is already so dark. If you have the talent to bring hope, why would you hide it?”
It’s not just the performers and choreographers sharing their talent to bring joy, as other key elements contribute to this visual feast. Set and costume designer Bob Crowley presents lush hues, dazzling textures, and nostalgic lines, even taking a few design cues from the film. Projections by 59 Productions prove utterly dazzling, as the animations take us through various scenes in Paris. Sketched black and white lines transition to softer watercolors, and the final ballet displays bold primary colors and geometric shapes.
The show runs at about two hours and 45 minutes, including intermission, but time simply flies. Sound issues are thankfully minimal. The orchestral amplification gets a bit loud at times (not complaining too much since it’s live), but mic issues were nonexistent on Wednesday night.
Needless to stay, my mind is sufficiently blown.