'An American Paris' dances from beginning to end

'An American in Paris' in Denver

Photos from ‘An American in Paris’ visiting Denver through March 18. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter

It’s deceptively challenging to adapt a beloved film for the stage. After all, the original object of people’s affection is not some distant memory, but readily available for viewing and inevitable comparisons. The stage version has to find a way to shine on its own terms. And the Broadway production of An American in Paris, the recipient of rave reviews and 12 Tony Award nominations, has done just that.

This new An American in Paris has flourished for many reasons. Like the movie, the show is a valentine to the timeless music of George Gershwin, drawing on more of his concert music and more of the songs that he wrote with his brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin. The piece is propelled by the beautiful, vibrant, Tony-winning choreography of Christopher Wheeldon, who also directed. The book, by Craig Lucas, acknowledges the film’s plot, but uses it as a starting point for a more nuanced, compelling story. An American in Paris works so well because Wheeldon and Lucas did not put the film on stage. Instead, they created a brand new piece of musical theater inspired by, but not beholden to, the movie.

“We set about making our version of the story, but we didn’t want to completely turn our backs on the movie,” said Wheeldon. “We were eager to make a show that would appeal to people who love the movie, but at the same time take those who hadn’t seen it on a different kind of journey.”

Christopher Wheeldon An American in Paris

In a departure from the film, the show is set just after World War II ends, and Bob Crowley’s Tony-winning scenic design brings post-war Paris to life, taking the ravaged city out of the darkness and into the light. The bare bones of the story are the same as in the movie, but the characters have been rethought and fleshed out, and the narrative reconsidered and deepened for a contemporary audience.

“The show is about the characters’ struggle to find life, to find love, to find happiness again after this dark period,” said Wheeldon. “The movie was made in the early ’50s and the war was still very fresh, so Paris was treated in a kind of hyper-unrealistic way. With the distance of time, there was so much more we could do. We had the freedom to place Paris in a more realistic, historical context, and talk about what the city was like after the Nazis left, and how romance and art and music were balm to the wounds. Paris behaves as a character in the show, and we see the city open up and breathe again, and take on all the beautiful qualities that we associate with it.”
 
Wheeldon, one of the most sought-after choreographers in the world, had never directed on Broadway before. But lead producer Stuart Oken wanted a singular vision for the show. “He felt that I would be able to bring a unique quality of movement to it,” said Wheeldon, “not only to the dancing, but to the transitions and the flow of the piece as a whole.”
 
An American in Paris Matthew Murphy
Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Wheeldon was very much involved with the shaping of the show and the selection of the music. “Craig wrote a brilliant treatment that acted as a framework, and then we all jumped in – Craig, Rob Fisher [who adapted and arranged the score] and I,” he says. “Then it was really about which pieces of music best told our story. We wanted it to feel like the Gershwins had written this music specifically for our show.”
 
The show features such classic songs as “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “Stairway to Paradise,” “But Not For Me” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” as well as numerous orchestral gems, including the lesser-known Second Rhapsody and Cuban Overture.

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The musical dances from beginning to end, and Wheeldon employs a variety of styles, including tap, jazz, old-fashioned Broadway and, most uniquely, ballet. He sets the tone at the very beginning, with a wordless opening sequence performed to the Concerto in F.

 “People always talk about the importance of the opening number,” he says. “So I wanted to signal to the audience that there is going to be a lot of dancing, and a lot of storytelling through dance. The opening tells the story of Paris and introduces characters through movement.”
 
Wheeldon uses dance in An American in Paris much in the way that one of his mentors, Jerome Robbins, did in West Side Story. That is, it forwards the plot and helps tell the story with great clarity. “Because I’m a ballet choreographer, and the leads are ballet dancers, many people who haven’t seen the show think we’re doing a ballet,” said Wheeldon. “But it’s not a ballet. It’s a classic Broadway musical with a story told through its book, music, singing, acting and movement. And it features incredibly beautiful, talented performers doing extraordinary things.”
 
As in the film, the culmination of the show is the American in Paris ballet. Wheeldon created a largely abstract work that includes a stunning and moving fantasy duet. “It contains the first truly romantic moment for Jerry and Lise. Earlier in the show, they have a flirtatious dance by the Seine, which marks the beginning of their romance. The pas de deux is the emotional, romantic climax of the whole show.”

Note: The cast of ‘An American in Paris’ includes Barton Cowperthwaite, a Denver native and former member of the Black Actors Guild.

(This report was provided to the DCPA NewsCenter by ‘An American in Paris.’)


An American in Paris
: Ticket information
An American In ParisAn American in Paris brings the magic and romance of Paris into harmony with unforgettable works from George and Ira Gershwin. This new hit musical about an American soldier, a mysterious French girl and an indomitable European city, each yearning for a new beginning in the aftermath of war, earned more awards than any other musical in the 2014-15 Broadway season.
March 8-19
Buell Theatre
ASL, audio-described and open-captioned performance 2 p.m. March 19
303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

Previous NewsCenter coverage of An American in Paris
An American Paris dances from beginning to end
Photos, video: A Denverite in ‘Paris’: Barton Cowperthwaite returns to alma mater
Meet Sara Esty, who plays Lise
Meet Garen Scribner, who plays Jerry

Photo gallery: An American in Paris production photos

An American in Paris

Photos from the national touring production of ‘An American in Paris’ by Matthew Murphy. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above.

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