Review: 'An American in Paris' National Tour (Dallas)
OnStage Texas Critic / Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for THE COLUMN
At last night’s private cast party for the national touring company of An American in Paris, I had a chance to talk with the two principals and several of the ensemble to discover some very fascinating insight in the show. The cast comes in two hours before curtain where they begin a routine of bar work, stretch work, physical therapy, and company body warm ups. Then it’s a series of vocal warm ups, stretch the vocal pipes, which is capped off with hair, make-up, body mic, and then finally they stand in the wings ready to go!
If there was a common thread in all the conversations I had with several in the cast was how they each said how much they loved and supported each other. You could truly see it in their eyes just the touching bond of friendship and family unity they have within the company. Each one spoke highly of one another. I must agree with them because it does radiate from the stage a very unified and tight cast!
It was almost a two year process of endless auditions all over country to create this cast. Over 3,000 audition. But the production team was determined to find those rare gems that are true triple talents of dance, voice, and acting chops. After last night’s performance you can clearly see they have found the crème de la crème in triple threat talent!
The ensemble that makes up An American in Paris will completely astound you with their seamless, ethereal and athletic dance technique. Each one of them has wrapped themselves within the magnificent choreography by Christopher Wheeldon (which won him the Tony Award for Best Choreography).
Wheeldon’s choreography is a synthesis of ballet, modern, and jazz with an added layer of gymnastics. The ensemble not only executed his visions of dance to unbelievable heights, but created bold strokes of artistry with their bodies. Throughout the evening you never saw anyone out of sync or behind a beat. Now add another coating to their talents regarding vocals. They bring fresh, strong, and stellar singing voices that make those Gershwin classic songs come to life. The final coating is their acting craft. The majority of the ensemble has no lines per se, so they must rely on their facial expressions and subtext to convey their emotions. They did just that. From the war being over to expressing great joy in a Parisian Perfume department store.
Here is a perfect example of two ensemble members that do just that: Barton Cowperthwaite and Caitlin Meighan portray at the top of Act One a solder and his wife reuniting now that the war is over. With their dancing and acting, they create a deeply touching duet of husband and wife brought back to together after a horrific war kept them apart. Their bodies intertwine and convey honest joy and love within the choreography. It is quite moving. That’s just one example of so many within this Tony award winning musical that is currently on its first national tour. But the ensemble’s pièce de résistance is the ballet in Act Two. It is simply marvelous to see it up close and live on stage. Wheeldon’s extraordinary work for this ballet is a piece of art, and this cast are the brushes to paint in vivid, intense colors on his blank canvas. From the formations to the razor sharp placement of arms, legs, and torsos, to the high in the air leaps-it was visually stunning to observe.
There are also praiseworthy performances by two wonderful women in the supporting cast. Emily Ferranti delivers a frothy, jovial performance as Milo Davenport, a rich, gorgeous American Philanthropist who supports the arts and rubs elbows with Parisian high society. Swathed in rich satin costumes of bold colors she oozes sultry sex appeal. Her rich, pristine soprano vocals add texture and romance to her songs. It was quite moving to see her heart break of unrequited love with just a simple facial expression in Act Two. Gayton Scott delivers some of the best laughs of the night as Madame Baurel. She is the Grande dame of Paris’s nose in the air high society. She has a great speaking voice that sounds just like a snooty society lady. Ms. Scott had that perfect comedic craft that made even her exit lines hilarious.
Etai Benson is Adam Hochberg, a veteran of the war who sadly damaged his right leg, but not his spirit. He has returned to his passion, composing. Benson has searing intensity that serves as the floor work for his subtext. Hochberg uses sarcastic, witty humor to mask his deeper emotions. Benson displays heartfelt honesty when he meets and falls in love with the ballerina Lise (Sara Esty). Benson has a hysterical scene with Esty at a swanky party where he continues to stick his foot in his mouth in trying to impress her. Benson has a robust tenor voice that shows raw heartache in the song “But Not For Me” (singing beautifully with him is Emily Ferranti).
Henri Bauerl is a handsome, optimistic Frenchman who comes from a very wealthy family. He is being groomed to take over the family empire (textiles), but Henri has a dream of being an entertainer. That is why he and Adam are collaborating on his own show. The role is portrayed by Nick Spangler, who is covered in superior talent. Spangler has a magnificent, soaring tenor voice that is so sublime that I’m sure the Gershwins would compose new songs just for him. Spangler has the 11:00 O’clock show stopping number with “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”. His crystal clear vocals glide flawlessly into his higher register when the music changes keys without a hint of crack. But Henri has a deeper secret that he is keeping from his family, he is gay. In the book it is not stated, but small, clear hints are. And to top it off, he is engaged to Lise. Yep, the same girl that Adam has fallen for. Spangler’s acting craft is heartbreaking and honest in the second Act where things begin to unravel. Spangler delivers a phenomenal performance.
Garen Scribiner (Jerry Mulligan) and Sara Esty (Lise Dassin) are the romantic couple who we the audience follow through in their complicated journey throughout Paris to bond in love. Garen is Jerry, an American who just got out of the war and instead of going home, decides to stay in Paris to continue his passion, drawing. He meets Lise by chance and he is smitten immediately. Jerry soon meets Adam and Henri and they soon deemed themselves the three musketeers. However, none of them know that two of them are in love and another is engaged-to the same girl! Think The Bachelorette set in Paris, but without the rose ceremony and hot tub.
Scribiner and Esty have sensual, sizzling chemistry that I’m sure has the Orchestra in the pit wiping their brows as they play their instruments. What makes this chemistry so organic and real is that both crest on an arc of sweet, innocent crush to punch in the stomach conflict, to raw sensuality in the ballet. Both have dance technique that is outstanding and jaw dropping exciting. Each has several solo dance pieces, plus duets, and leading the full company in other high energy numbers. Schribner and Esty begin the evening with several dance sequences but don’t say a word. They express it all in dance. So when both begin to sing you are actually taken aback because they both possess exquisite singing voices. To see how much detail they give to the lyrics vocally and emotionally is stunning. Their acting craft is on the same equal artistic level as their dancing and singing. They open up their hearts to the audience, allowing us to see every emotion. I mean talk about triple threats here! Their performance is what anchors this production with tour de force talent.
A standing ovation should also go to Musical Director David Andrews Rogers and his superlative fourteen piece Orchestra. Talk about the hardest working orchestra in the country right now! The Gershwin score never subsides. The strings, piano, and the other instruments create the most glorious music to fill the massive Music Hall. No electronic strings or pre-recorded music. All live and all in its splendor. The score is from one of the greatest composers ever, so to have this orchestra bring it to such luxurious life and conducted by a true maestro, well that is a rarity in today’s national tours.
When I saw the original Broadway production in May 2015 at the Palace Theatre, I turned to my guest at intermission and said, “I don’t know how this can possibly tour.” The scenic design had tons of projections and videos, while a sea of set walls and pieces were mechanized to move all over the stage. With great relief this touring production has only a few minor tweaks here and there. There are still all those sumptuous projections, and the set pieces and walls move all over the stage. But they are not moved by mechanics. It was done with the cast in character, as they place a wall or set piece; they gel into dance or a pose. Who needs technology when you got talent like that! Natasha Katz’s elegant lighting design, and Bob Crowley’s sleek sets and colorful costumes are all there. The only major change I noticed involved a set piece in the number “I’ll build a Stairway to Paradise”. In an earlier scene there is a comment of Henri doing this number at Radio City Music Hall. As his dream sequence comes to life, three massive arcs fly down resembling the design of RCMH. In the Broadway version each triangle had neon lighting, so a dizzy array of colors and patterns appeared. For the tour, the arcs are there, but they are not lined in neon. Instead projections are aimed at them to create the patterns. Also the art deco skyscraper background had tiny twinkling lights; the tour’s version does not. But Dallas audiences will still get the Grande epic design that its New York counterpart had.
An American in Paris is that rare breed of musical that just practically doesn’t exist anymore. We had Twyla Tharp’s Movin Out and Susan Stroman’s Contact. But one had a single vocalist above on a catwalk singing, while the other had a splatter of singers. But both focused on dance.
As several cast members said last night, “It’s a two hour musical with a 14 minute ballet at the end.” This musical will be literally impossible to recreate. I mean has anyone heard of Movin Out or Contact being done anywhere? Yep. Thought so.
If you have tiny kids or teens who love to dance, and we mean hardcore youth dancers, not tiny Brittany doing a little routine at the Ladies social luncheon because mother is the charity ball chairperson. If you have those hardcore dance/theater kids in your home or class or current show, you MUST take them to see this spectacular piece of musical theater heaven before they become addicted to Hamilton and rapping. They will see what it takes to be a true triple talent powerhouse once they see this cast! Or if you are married, engaged, or dating-this is the perfect treat to enjoy together. And if you are a lover of bold, dynamic new musical theater, go get tickets NOW!
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS-The Musical (National Tour)
Dallas Summer Musicals at the Music Hall in Fair Park
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