By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out”)
When ballet stars Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope began their roles as expatriate American artist Jerry Mulligan and native Parisian ballerina Lise Dassin, they had no way of knowing their performances would last for most of three years as they opened first in Paris in 2014, transferred to Broadway in 2015 and moved the production to London’s West End last year, where it just closed a month ago.
Based on the 1951 movie by Gene Kelly, this was the cinematic debut of the then-unknown Leslie Caron, who rocketed to stardom as a result of her appearance in the film. “An American in Paris: A New Musical” has an entirely new book written by Christopher Wheeldon, who also choreographed this production with amazing skill.
For the national tour stopping here at the Saenger Theater this week, McGee Maddox takes on the Jerry Mulligan role with a dashing and carefree manner. Allison Walsh plays Lise, the subject of his musical tribute “Liza” and a true ballet star of the highest order.
In many ways, the exciting look of projections by Bob Crowley that appear to be drawings emanating from Mulligan’s sketchbook are perfect compliments to the many moving parts that make up the scenic design, as intricately woven as some of the ballet sequences depicted in the musical work. This, of course, echoes much of what Kelly used in his progressive film, but Crowley also served to render exquisite costume designs for this production too.
The narrator of the tale is another American, Adam Hochberg, played by Matthew Scott in the role based on the Oscar Levant role in the film. From the first number, “I’ve Got Rhythm,” in which Scott, Maddox and Ben Michael as Henri Baurel perform as “The Three Musketeers,” it is evident that George and Ira Gershwin’s music and lyrics are going to be celebrated in a way that only a Broadway show can do.
The orchestra conducted by music director David Andrews Rogers is sumptuous and full, but it is in the singing and dancing where the biggest thrills can be experienced by audience members.
Treatments of “S’Wonderful” and “Fidgety Feet” are playful and endearing with the major leads all contributing to their success.
The biggest number, though, which involves some 20 tap dancers is “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” and is a showcase for Michael’s imaginary “flawless” rendition of him as a song and dance man. It’s a number that has so much to offer in terms of grace and finesse and is a Gerhwin number that is not nearly as well known as others like “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and “But Not for Me.”
Although all three men at one time or another have designs on Lise, the one true love that is seen tested and proven time and again is that between the ballet hopeful Lise and the upstart sketch artist Jerry.
There is also the role of Milo Davenport (Kirsten Scott), an arts patron who wants to sponsor both Lise and Jerry’s artistic endeavors while hoping to secure the artist’s affection in the process. This presents one potential conflict between Jerry and Lise that must be addressed.
The book also deals with a conflicted Lise, who wants to repay the kindness her benefactors – Henri’s parents – paid her during the war by their hiding her from the Nazis. She, of course, is Jewish. His parents Monsieur and Madame Baurel (Scott Willis and Teri Hansen) do what they can to keep Lise feeling indebted to their son and her guilt brings about a decision to become a martyr on the matrimonial pyre.
Luckily, as the audience hopes, there’s plenty of time for the two lovebirds to recognize the depth of their feelings for each other before Act II ends.
The national tour of “An American in Paris: A New Musical” continues after having recently played in January, 2018 at the Saenger Theater, 1111 Canal Street, as part of the Broadway Across New Orleans season sponsored by East Jefferson General Hospital.