Gershwin in Paris: S’wonderful

The Broadway tour of "An American in Paris" creates a gorgeous spectacle of song and dance inside Keller Auditorium

“S’wonderful, it’s marvelous,” this Broadway version of An American in Paris, playing at the Keller Auditorium through Sunday.

I thought so when I saw it in New York a year ago, and I still thought so last night, when the national touring company version opened here with a cast that is not as accomplished as the one I saw on Broadway, but nevertheless gave some outstanding and absorbing performances. All the other elements that make this such a wonderful show are, happily, unchanged, except for the orchestra, which is smaller. Christopher Wheeldon’s signature choreography; Bob Crowley’s stylish multimedia sets and costumes, which put you squarely in wartime Paris; and Natasha Katz’s lighting design, giving us both a city of light and one of war-time darkness, remain the same, as does the book by Craig Lucas.

Puttin’ on the ritz: the “American in Paris” company. Photo: Matthew Murphy

These elements come felicitously together in the service of George Gershwin’s music, the jazzy orchestral “American in Paris,” composed in 1928 as an homage to the city of the Lost Generation, as well as songs with lyrics by Ira Gershwin such as “I Got Rhythm,” “S’Wonderful,” and “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” familiar to the many members of the not-so-young audience who remember the 1951 film on which the show is based.

That film was all about dancing (Gene Kelly, who starred as Jerry Mulligan, an American artist working in Paris supported by the G.I. Bill, choreographed one of the most expensively produced ballets in American film history), and so is the show. Wheeldon, who also directed, had enormous fun with the choreography, which is replete with allusions to dance history, including a brief but very funny takeoff on the allegorical ballets so beloved by the 17th century French court.

Big Broadway splash: a bundle of joy in the Keller. Photo: Matthew Murphy

In the first act, in the shop where Lise Dassin (Lise Bouvier in the film) works, there are kaleidoscopic effects reminiscent of Busby Berkeley and an umbrella dance that New York Times critic Charles Isherwood thought was a reference to “Singing in the Rain,” but could equally be a bow to the “raindrops” section of Jerome Robbins’ “The Concert,” which is in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s repertoire. The OBT audience will recognize Wheeldon’s inventive partnering from his “There Where She Loved,” and his skillful handling of large ensembles from “Rush,” which the company performed to critical acclaim at the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America Festival some years ago. And watching Leigh-Ann Esty as Lise (alternating on Tuesday night with her sister Sara Esty, who ordinarily plays the role) and McGee Maddox as Mulligan in several pas de deux on opening night (casting changes), I couldn’t help thinking of the heartfelt dancing of Alison Roper and Artur Sultanov in Wheeldon’s “Liturgy,” because the very tall Maddox and the very petite Esty showed the same kind of chemistry.

That’s remarkable. Maddox, who joined the cast only recently, hasn’t had much opportunity to develop a partnering relationship with Esty, a former Miami City Ballet dancer who has been with the Paris touring company from the beginning. Maddox, a tall, big-boned man with an open, frank American face, trained in Texas at the Ben Stevenson Houston Ballet Academy and then went to the National Ballet of Canada, where as a principal dancer he debuted in the role of Leontes in Wheeldon’s critically acclaimed A Winter’s Tale. Generally speaking, tall dancers can have problems with the bravura solos that shorter men seem to execute so easily. Not so Maddox, who tossed off some tours jeté in the second act as if he were strolling along the Champs Élysées. Both of these dancers, I might add, can sing, and sing well, as did Christopher M. Howard, substituting for Nick Spangler as Henri Baurel, a would-be nightclub song-and-dance man who is concealing this ambition from his bourgeois family, maintained their French accented English throughout the show.

Sara Esty and McGee Maddox, a beautiful pairing. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Howard was wonderful in the “Stairway to Paradise” number, and I’m a sucker, I confess, for that nod to the Ziegfeld Follies and the Folies Bergère, showgirls in plumed headdresses, and a chorus line. I also loved the two scenes that take place on the Seine riverbank just as much at the Keller as I did in New York. In the first, Maddox and Esty dance to “Liza,” and make friends. In the second, the couple pledges to live happily ever after, and the curtain falls.

Other fine performances were delivered by Etai Benson as Adam Hochberg, the classical pianist and would-be composer so memorably done by Oscar Levant in the film, and Gayton Scott and Don Noble as Baurel’s uptight parents, characters that did not appear in the movie. The only disappointing performance was by Emily Ferranti as Milo Davenport, the rich American philanthropist who wants to share her money and her bed with Mulligan, who has eyes only for Lise. She can certainly belt out a song, and she wore her costumes well, but she didn’t play the role with the subtle sophistication that marked Jill Paice’s interpretation on Broadway or Nina Foch’s in the film.

I have some quibbles with the book, which overcomplicates the plot with political overtones, and seems to me to have a few too many anti-French quips (“I hate it when the French are right,” Hochberg says at one point), but those quibbles don’t really amount to a hill of haricots-verts. Truth be told, I love this show, and would go again in a heartbeat. Better hurry; the Portland performances end on Sunday.

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The Broadway touring production of An American in Paris continues through Sunday, May 21, in Keller Auditorium. Ticket and schedule information here.

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