Even though the vast majority of musicals contain some kind of dancing, the choreographed movements of the cast are most often used as an enhancement of the songs and story. It’s a rare production that attempts to tell even part of the story strictly through dancing, let alone a huge chunk of it.
In that way alone, An American in Paris is a standout. Playing at Bass Performance Hall through February 19, it is both a highly conventional and unconventional production. It follows the journey of American GI Jerry Mulligan (Garen Scribner), who decides to stay in Paris after World War II to pursue his art. His desire to remain there is greatly enhanced when he meets Lise Dassin (Sara Esty), a ballet dancer looking for her big break.
Jerry is far from the only one pursuing Lise, however. She also catches the eye of Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson), a pianist/composer who accompanies the local ballet troupe, and Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler), a man who has designs on becoming a singer and also hides a history with Lise. Add in Jerry also drawing the attention of young and vivacious arts benefactor Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti), and the story is the rarely found love hexagon.
Based on the 1951 Oscar-winning film of the same name, the 2015 Tony Award-winning musical is set to the music of George and Ira Gershwin, including songs like “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “Liza,” “S’Wonderful,” and “But Not for Me.” The classic music sets the tone for the production, but in a truly unusual occurrence for a Broadway show — at least in modern times — it’s the dancing that is showcased the most.
On multiple occasions, singing gives way to extended dance sequences, highlighting not just the abilities of the person playing the actual ballerina, but of the entire cast. These include dream sequences in which characters fantasize about things they have yet to realize in their real lives. For long periods, sometimes reaching 10 minutes or longer, the audience is transported into a reverie full of enchanting ballet that also advances the story.
In choosing this method, director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and book writer Craig Lucas have trusted in the ability of their story to shine through despite the lack of words. Storytellers often feel the need to lead us by the nose, but Wheeldon and Lucas give the audience credit for having intelligence. They have crafted a production that makes perfect sense because of its sheer beauty and the skills of its performers.
And that cast seldom strikes a false note. Original Broadway alternates Scribner and Esty, thanks to their superb dancing, are undeniably the stars of the musical, but the supporting actors are equally successful. Hochberg uses a limp, a New York accent, and his naturally short stature to great effect, stealing many of the scenes he’s in.
Also of note is Bob Crowley's set design, which utilizes a series of projections to create an immersive Parisian landscape and a fantastical dream world. Wheeldon's seamless choreography moves different set pieces around the stage, showcasing the wonderful dancing even more.
Any fan of musical theater should make it a point to see An American in Paris. It’s a remarkable experience that shows that the art of storytelling can be accomplished in many different ways.