For the last year and a half, the musical-theater geeks among us have been obsessed with one thing non-stop. You know what I mean: Hamilton. I admit it, I’m one of those people who need an intervention because I can’t resist making Hamilton references in everything I do (see what I did with “non-stop” in that last sentence?).
So it was an especially thrilling, lovely experience on Wednesday evening to be reminded that with all of Hamilton’s brilliance and innovation and hip-hop audacity, that same kind of brilliance and innovation still exist in good old-fashioned traditional musicals.
To wit: the Tony Award-winning An American in Paris, which runs through Feb. 12 at the Music Hall at Fair Park, and then transfers to the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth.
It takes its inspiration and heart from the Academy Award-winning 1951 film of the same name: a brash, exuberant American soldier-turned-artist lands in Paris after World War II; he meets and woos a mysterious, reserved French ballerina harboring a major secret; supporting characters provide both humor and conflict; refreshing lack of a villain (unless you count the ghosts of the former Nazi occupiers); Paris itself starring as a visually stunning supporting character.
But don’t expect a rehash of the movie. The story has been rewritten somewhat quite poetically, and that famous 17-minute ballet at the end has been preserved in terms of tribute and length (I didn’t time it, but it’s long). However, this ballet-jazz rendition is also completely different from the movie’s, breathtaking in its originality and execution.
As Jerry Mulligan and Lise Dassin, Garen Scribner and Sara Esty would certainly make the film’s Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron proud. Scribner oozes grace and athleticism, while Esty flies across the stage as the epitome of balletic precision and emotion. Both shoot out flames of chemistry that definitely prove that ballet can be s-e-x-y.
Also exceptional are the hilariously gloomy Etai Benson as Jerry’s songwriter sidekick Adam Hochberg; Nick Spangler as Henri Baurel (Closeted! He’s a singer! His parents would not approve!), Jerry’s rival for Lise’s affection; Emily Ferranti as Jerry’s art sponsor and would-be lover, Milo Davenport; and especially Gayton Scott as the imperiously oh-so-French Madame Baurel, Henri’s mother. Scott evinces range worthy of a leading role, superbly prim and haughty outwardly but internally a charmingly mess of mushy emotion.
Benson’s Adam serves as the sad-eyed Eeyore of the show. “I love depression!” he declares early on. “Artists have a responsibility to show the dark side of life.” The cast proceeds to do just the opposite, bouncing off each other and the set with infectious joie de vivre. When Adam finally realizes that his French friends were right, that his dirge-like ballet score desperately does need an injection of happiness, he explodes hilariously: “God dammit! I hate it when French people are right!”
Attention must be paid — look, Mom, a theater reference that’s not about Hamilton! — to the direction and sensational choreography by Tony-winner Christopher Wheeldon, Craig Lucas’ book, the set and costumes of Tony-winner Bob Crowley, and lighting design by Natasha Katz.
The music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin, of course, steal the show right along with the dance. The musical was based on the movie, which in turn was based on George Gershwin’s 1928 orchestral composition An American in Paris. You’ll hear the glory of that piece, along with other hummable wonders such as “I Got Rhythm”; a thrilling three-man harmonic convergence on “S’Wonderful”; “But Not For Me”; and “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.”
“Stairway” features one of the quickest, visually monumental set changes I’ve ever seen. One minute you’re in a tiny jazz club in post-war Paris, the next you’re smack-dab amid the art deco grandeur of New York City’s Radio City Music Hall complete with Ziegfeld Follies-worthy dancing girls.
On a somber note (Adam and Eeyore would be proud), it’s astonishing how many lines in An American in Paris — again, unless you count the Nazi references, but then again maybe not so astonishing given the Nazi references — clearly resonated with the audience in this new era of American politics (most of them uttered by Scott’s Madame Baurel):
“The walls have ears … the world is filled with treachery.”
“I’ve covered up so much in the war that I can’t even find me.”
“My mother is obsessed by appearances because she knows what can happen when you are discovered doing the right thing by the wrong people.”
“I want everything to stop changing so often and so quickly.”
We also find out, in a devastatingly emotional moment, that a completely unexpected character was a member of the French Resistance.
So, I say, with all my heart: Vive la France. Vive la Résistance. Vive la musicale An American in Paris.
Fair Park Music Hall, Dallas, through Feb. 12: Prices start at $25. www.DallasSummerMusicals.org or 1-800-745-3000. (Tip: You can also order season tickets for the 2017-18 season, which is your first step toward being guaranteed tickets for the 2018-19 season run of, you guessed it, Hamilton.)
Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth, Feb. 14-19: Prices start at $44. www.basshall.com. 817-212-4280.