“An American in Paris,” the Tony Award-winning musical that showcases the music of George and Ira Gershwin, begins with a lone piano center stage. Behind it, Paris’s Arc de Triomphe rises ominously in the background, a shadowy figure in a sea of black. It’s a solemn opening for a show that, by contrast, is filled with buoyant music and exquisite, celebratory ballet. But this moment memorializes a time when “the City of Light went dark,” during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. The fact that the almost three-hour musical practically bursts with bright colors, modern art, jazz, and modern dance tells the story of determined post-war Parisians and ex-pats who enthusiastically — almost defiantly —brought the iconic French capital back to life.
That is the theme of much of this terrific production of "An American in Paris," onstage at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through July 1. The characters, including several former American GIs, are trying to make peace with their previous lives and navigate their new ones after years of violence, deprivation, oppression and fear.
There are a lot of good reasons to come see this show, which launched in 2016 and is making its 58th and final stop here in Milwaukee, namely:
The music. The first iteration of “An American in Paris” was actually a symphonic tone poem by George Gershwin, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in 1928. Inspired by the work in concert, producer Arthur Freed developed a musical incorporating many of Gershwin’s other songs, which became a movie starring Gene Kelly in 1950. The convoluted love story plot of the movie (and this musical) is definitely secondary to the music and the spectacle of the piece— which is fine. Hearing the classic songs “I Got Rhythm,” “S’Wonderful,” and “But Not for Me,” performed live is enough to recommend the show. Hearing these numbers, in addition to the lush symphonic pieces that underscore extended dance sequences is a treat. The production’s exceptional 14-piece pit orchestra, led by David Andrews Rogers, travels with the show, which is extremely rare. In this case it’s necessary due to the incredibly complicated score.
The dancing. Christopher Weldon won a Tony for his choreography in “An American in Paris,” and rightly so. A former dancer with the Royal Ballet and the New York City Ballet companies, he elevates the dance sequences in this show far above what one might expect from a typical Broadway musical. Both of the leads, McGee Maddox as Jerry Mulligan and Allison Walsh as Lise Dassin, have extensive ballet training and many members of the cast have credits from the Joffrey Ballet on the their resumes, which is what this gorgeous and lyrical show demands. Whether the cast is casually dancing in a Paris bar to “I Got Rhythm,” executing tap routine and a kick line straight out of Radio City Music Hall in “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” performing one of several long ballets, or even changing the scenery, they are mesmerizing. As Mulligan, the American artist who falls instantly in love with a French ballerina, Maddox shows off incredible athletic prowess and technique throughout the show. Likewise, Walsh is the definition of grace as she spins, flies, and glides across the stage, frequently on pointe. Her tiny frame seems weightless as she is lifted and twirled by her accomplished partners.
The set. No one should go to the theater just to see a chandelier fall or a helicopter take off, but there are stage sets that make the experience magical. Designed by Bob Crowley, this is one — which is particularly notable since all of the pieces need to be easily transportable on the cross country tour. The set is constantly in motion, using some very sophisticated, Tony Award-winning projections, including black and white photography, animation, and modernist-style artwork. By arranging and rearranging mirrored panels that double as screens, the stage easily transforms from a ballet studio to a Paris street corner, to a gallery opening and more.
The script. A lot of big musicals depend on spectacle to entertain the audience, getting by with little dialogue with even less creativity between big numbers. But the books for “An American In Paris” was written by acclaimed playwright Craig Lucas, who makes every interaction in the show pithy, funny, and original, no matter how brief. Supporting character Adam Hochberg (a tremendous Matthew Scott) gets most of the really good lines, and as the wry and cynical narrator of the show that’s fitting. American heiress Milo Davenport (a pitch perfect Kirsten Scott) also lands some nice jabs in conversation with her French counterparts.
The supporting cast. It’s very rare to find a true triple threat — someone who can act, sing, and dance with equal skill. Both of the leads in this show, for instance, are exceptional dancers, passable singers and okay actors. They are consistently outshone by their supporting cast mates Matthew and Kirsten Scott, who, in addition to being Broadway powerhouses, are a real-life couple. Both have beautiful, deceptively strong singing voices and enough dance training to convincingly shuffle off to Buffalo. They also bring real dimension to their characters. Each loses their romantic interest in the story so they have more emotional ground to cover than the dewey-eyed lovers, but they also add much more nuance and texture to their portrayals. As the disfigured ex-soldier who struggles to write happy songs now that the war is over, Matthew is extremely captivating. Just try to keep your eyes off of him when he’s on stage.