The film version of An American in Paris is one of the signature musicals of MGM’s golden age (it won the Oscar for best picture in 1951), but by modern standards, it’s not great. Sure, there’s the music by George Gershwin and the dancing of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron (especially the centerpiece closing dream ballet), but the elements don’t always fit together well. And Kelly’s character — former G.I.-cum-starving-artist Jerry Mulligan — is pretty much a selfish prick. He allows himself to be a kept man by art patroness Milo Davenport while openly chasing gamine Lise, who is the fiancee of one of his friends. There’s not a lot of subtext there, no commentary about shell-shocked soldiers grappling with mortality or even the “lovable heel” angle of film noir. Nope, he’s just an asshole. When he gets with Lise at the end, you’re kinda mad.
These flaws are largely dispelled in Craig Lucas’ book for the original 2015 stage version of An American in Paris (now onstage at Fair Park Music Hall through Feb. 12, and moving to Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth on Feb. 14). There’s grit and personality and explanations that flesh out Jerry and several other characters … and Gershwin’s music and amazing dancing. It’s truly the best of all possible worlds: A delightful, old-fashionedly show-stopping musical with a lot of smarts.
The plot is less about a love triangle than a love rhombus: French ballerina Lise (Sara Esty) is engaged Frenchman Henri (Nick Spangler), whose family may have been collaborators with the Nazis (or maybe something else). Lise doesn’t love Henri (who may even be gay), but she’s devoted to him. Jerry (Garen Scribner) is smitten with Lise, and while she feels an attraction back, she is put off that he seems to be coupled with Milo (Emily Ferranti). Meanwhile, Jerry’s fellow-American-G.I.-in-Paris Adam (Etai Benson), a composer with a gloomy outlook, pines in silence for Lise.
Lise meets with Jerry. Jerry pursues Lise. Henri can’t work up the courage to propose. Adam struggles to find a voice. Heck, it’s almost like La La Land … maybe Le Le Land.
An American in Paris is simply gorgeous in every particular, from the nimble sets (including inventive projections), evocative costumes, sparkling lighting and stunning choreography. Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has turned a big, vivid movie into something nearly as big but specific to the stage. One of the set-pieces from the film, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” famously includes a huge lighted staircase; the adaptation here does away with the stairs, but comes up with such a dazzling substitute you never miss it. And the closing ballet makes much more sense (a combination of dream and concert) that lasts 14 glorious minutes.
The principal actors are all deliciously ebullient and likable … even Jerry, whose treatment of Milo seems less awful (it helps that Milo is given to modern self-reflection). There aren’t enough musicals anymore that are just about being delightful. This is welcome to set the standard.