A New and Changed American in Paris

by Sam Pynes

George Gershwin’s “Concerto in F” has been one of my all-time favorite pieces of music ever since I heard a classmate perform the first movement with our college orchestra. Gershwin represents, in a very special way, America’s composite culture and the wonderful and energetic possibilities that can emerge from a shared vision of the future. African-American-born jazz finds a home with both Latin dance rhythms and the old world elegance and precision of the Russian romantics. An American in Paris, now at the Lied Center for Performing Arts, is an extension of that idea, as a composite of Gershwin’s music, and the literal story of two cultures meeting and falling in love over art. In the story it includes painting, but as expressed in the play, that art is especially dance.

“An American in Paris,” in its original iteration, is a 20 minute musical tone poem by George Gershwin and was meant to capture how an American might feel walking through Paris in 1928, complete with car horns. These tunes become the central themes of the 1951 Best Picture-winning film of the same name which is full of Gershwin’s music and songs.

The basic story follows Jerry Mulligan, a GI turned artist, who decides to stay in Paris following the liberation of 1944.

The movie functioned primarily as a star vehicle for Gene Kelly to exhibit and experiment with more abstract forms of dance, along with the usual tap. It ends with an abstract modernist ballet to the themes of “An American in Paris.” In the film, Gene Kelly taps his way through most of the movie outside of the fantasy ballet. In the musical, tap is mostly relegated to Henri’s Radio City number in which Jerry does not appear, with just a little sprinkled into “I Got Rhythm.” Much of the style and sensibility of the ballet remains, albeit in a different and more grounded context. If you love the movie, you will enjoy this interpretation. If you found the movie thin on plot, give this a shot because it bolsters the drama without jettisoning the dance.

The musical flushes out the story more, and subs out most of the songs, but the core is generally the same. Not counting the symphonic pieces quoted in both, they only actually share 3 songs between the movie’s eight and the show’s twelve (eleven in this production), which showcases that they really thought through this musical from the ground up, from the fertile soil of the Gershwin back catalog, taking quite a bit of liberty in the remixing and orchestration.

The play takes the bones of the movie and reconstructs it completely. Paris itself, and the residual pain and sadness of war become the central focus, finding joy after sorrow and finding life after war, or as Henri puts it, finding “a change of heart.” At the time of the film’s release, WWII was still so near as to have been an unavoidable backdrop in the movie-goer’s mind. The musical supplies this context for the modern audience in the prologue and throughout the drama. What was expressed in the movie’s original silly joy as Gene Kelly tap dances for kids, is recontextualized in the musical as the primary theme as the characters realize that war-torn Paris needs a little joy. Adam, the pianist, becomes the central narrator of the story, and goes from Oscar Levant’s sardonic, iratiable, and dry-humored composer to an insecure and injured Jewish vet with a strong New York accent. Most importantly, he also is smitten, turning a love triangle into a love square.

The other major changes incorporate Milo Davenport, the rich American who is sponsoring Jerry’s art, more into the story by introducing her to the other characters much earlier. When she sees Lise dance, she decides to fund the writing of a new ballet for her with designs by Jerry and music by Adam. In the film she doesn’t meet Adam, Henri, or Lise till the masquerade at the end. The masquerade does happen in the show, but at the end of Act I. The story goes on from there, expanding on a subplot of Henri fearing that his stogy parents will learn of his stage aspirations, as his parents themselves try to learn to live again after hiding who they were for so long during the war. The fantasy sequence makes a bit more sense, because it functions as the performance of Adam’s newly-written ballet for Lise, which he has now realized needs hope and joy, and Jerry’s presence in the number is explained by Lise needing to imagine him there in order to feel the joy necessary to dance.

If you had the good fortune to catch the excellent PBS broadcast of Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope reprising their roles in the West End Production, or the original tour that came to Omaha’s Orpheum in 2018, know that this tour produced by Big League productions is significantly simplified from both, but still impressive and worth seeing. Most significantly, outside of a general downsizing of the scale of the show, and a simplifying and shortening of some of the dances, is the complete absence of Act II’s “Fidgety Feet,” though granted, it was the most frivolous of the original production’s numbers, much as “By Strauss,” is in the film. The fantasy ballet is simplified as well, and made a little less abstract, I assume to make it more accessible to a wider audience. Gone are the costumes with the abstract shapes in favor of primary colors. Storywise, there is a context change in the kisses that close Act One that obscures the story unnecessarily. In the original production this is much clearer. The costumes in that scene specifically slid across the line from wild art-student masquerade to uncomfortable chains and leather, enough to prompt my companion to wonder what straightlaced characters like Henri and Lise were doing there in the first place.

Like many tours that have been redesigned to fit into a variety of spaces, this one has been squared off at the top and sides. The framing mechanism to make sense of this is rather ingenious. The preshow has a large movie projector and an admonishment not to smoke projected on the screen in French. The show opens with Adam giving the usual story context for newly-liberated Paris, but now along with a projection of pathé-supplied newsreel of the Paris liberation. As the story enters the “Concerto in F” prologue, the projections move to the back of the stage. Similarly, at the end of the show, the closing picture of the characters once again becomes newsreel as we transition back to the present. At times during the production itself, the projections could be a bit distracting, especially as they have lost some of the original production’s purposeful continuity of seemingly being drawn on the spot in Jerry’s notebook. The smoothness of the show was still generally impressive, outside of a few swinging drops, and a slight projector issue in one scene that turned everything blue.

The dancers are very good, especially Fiona Claire Huber as Lise and the women of the ensemble. They made a twenty-person cast seem like a lot more people! Branson Bice as Jerry is the weakest of the primary characters in terms of singing, but he made up for it in dance and characterizations. I don’t envy the challenge of finding breath to sing while dancing ballet. Overall, a few of the lines and jokes were rushed unnecessarily.

Daniel Cardenas (Henri) and TJ Lamando (Adam) are both very strong singers, as is Bella Muller (Milo). My favorite part of the show, and certainly the funniest, was the beginning of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” in which Henri haltingly and hilariously tries out his song and dance routine for the first time.

“Who Cares” had a nice new beat where Jerry and Lise see each other and wish they could be together.

I’m continually struck by the gracious nature of the tours that come through Lincoln in offering masterclasses for student dancers, especially considering the compressed nature of this tour: they perform in Arizona tomorrow!

“The radio and the telephone and the movies that we know may just be passing fancies and in time may go,” but in the American music that the Gershwins helped to develop, and the romantic musical sensibility that lives on in many other movies and shows, An American in Paris is here to stay. But there is only one more chance to see it in Lincoln!

If you go: There is one remaining performance of An American in Paris at 2:00 pm at the Lied Center for Performing Arts. Tickets are still available online and at the box office.

Sam Pynes is an actor, writer, and story enthusiast. Mostly harmless.

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