Review: “An American In Paris” National Tour (Hartford, CT)

Noah Golden

  • Connecticut Critic

Poet Mattie Stepanek famously urged readers to “play after every storm,” a reminder that the creators of “An American In Paris” – a cheerful, old-fashioned tuner – seemed to heed, no questions asked. In a short prologue we get introduced to the war-ravaged city of Paris in 1945. The color palate is grey and muted, angry Parisians fill the streets, swastikas and United States army uniforms mingle together. But once the Nazi flag is taken down, the colors quickly begin to pop, feet begin to tap and there’s little time to look back on the country’s recent violence.

No, despite the post-war setting “An American In Paris” is a decidedly sunny piece of song-and-dance nostalgia. Based on the 1951 film of the same name, the musical premiered on Broadway in 2015, where it played a celebrated, Tony-winning 18-month run before launching a national tour (which this reviewer caught in Hartford, CT). At its core, “Paris” is a theatrical ode to dance and art lovingly staged and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. The songs (a handful of catchy standards by George and Ira Gershwin) and book (by Craig Lucas) have one real goal: to make sure this bubbly musical sails seamlessly from one piece of choreography to the next.

In the moments when feet are firstly planted on the ground, “Paris” feels uninspired and old-hat. There’s a plot, of course, involving a love triangle (or perhaps a love quadrangle) between an American GI turned amateur artist (alternate Ryan Steele), an aspiring American composer (Etai Benson), a French industrialist with a secret desire to be a nightclub singer (Nick Spangler) and a beautiful Parisian ballet dancer (Sara Etsy). In increasingly predictable ways, the paths of these four artists cross in the City of Light and love blooms in various combinations. It’s a fine, pleasant story populated by character types rather than real people and conflicts that can easily be overcome in a few bars of music. Writer Lucas does a nice job of moving the show along with a breezy pace, infusing the corny plot with some zippy jokes and adding a few moments of somber reflection. What doesn’t work so well is the admirable but unnecessary attempts to modernize the script with a smattering of four-letter words and the questioning of a character’s sexuality, which ends up feeling anachronistic in the world of this squeaky clean, MGM musical brought to life. 

The cast do their best to make the thin story works. Etsy is on point and en pointe as our ingénue, dancing beautifully and singing with a crystal-clear soprano (even if her French accent mostly disappears in song). Steele proves a handsome and spritely lead, as well as a good foil to wise-guy Benson (think Crutchie from “Newsies” all grown up) and dapper Spangler, whose “Book Of Mormon” pedigree is apparent in his sparkling comic timing. The large ensemble cast is uniformly strong, all dancing with panache and singing with the tight vibrato and bright tone of Depression-era radio performers.

They are backed by a terrific sliding panel set by Bob Crowley, romantic lighting by Natasha Katz and exquisite “Sunday In The Park With George”-like projections by 59 Productions. While these kind of animations are overused nowadays, the ones in “Paris” (which emulates a variety of artistic styles, from charcoal sketches to Degas-like impressionism to bright, cubist geometric patterns) are among the most artful and interesting I’ve seen.

But, again, they are all in service of some terrific dancing of which there are a few highlights. A fun routine at the top of the show has the leads dancing with umbrellas, a charming nod to the musical’s Gene Kelly roots, while Spangler gets his own top hat and tails number in the second act, complete with showgirls and a kick line. The climax and Wheeldon’s crowning achievement is a colorful 15-minute long ballet that’s terrifically performed and artfully meshes the moves of Fosse, Robbins and Tharp into the vocabulary of classical ballet. Backed by a lush, string-heavy, 13-piece orchestra (conducted by David Andrews Rogers), this segment is the only time “An American In Paris” steps out from the shadow of being just an average Great American Songbook musical.

Unfortunately, the whole thing doesn’t quite live up to the artistry and creativity dispelled in that final ballet. Long stretches feel flimsy and we just don’t care enough about these bland characters to support a two act musicals that runs over two hours. But perhaps these are all symptoms of being the kind of outdated show I’ve never been able to take cotton to, the kind of musical that too often gives the genre a bad name. There are those that equate all musicals with cheesy one-liners, characters who randomly break out into pirouettes mid-sentence and romances that are formed in the blink of an eye, although “Paris” is as far from something like “Next To Normal” as “The Shining” is to “Zoolander.”

That being said, late in the show wannabe composer Adam Hochberg has an epiphany about the ballet he’s writing. “Life is already so dark,” he says, “if you’ve got the talent to make it brighter, to give people hope, joy, why would you withhold that? [The show has] got to be a celebration.” We currently live in turbulent times.  Violence and bigotry are on the rise, protesters are still flooding city streets and it’s unclear how our new administration will treat the diverse group of Americans that make the theater community and our country so vibrant. In fact, hours before I sat down at the Bushnell, our president-elect sent out a series of tweets criticizing a hit Broadway show. There will be time for “Hamilton,” “Cabaret” or “Ragtime” – works that comment and reflect on our current political climate. There will also be new, challenging works written in response to our country’s collective fear and anger. I welcome all of those. But Mr. Hochberg also has it right. Sometimes, amidst all the darkness and uncertainty, you just have to forget your troubles for a few hours, celebrate life, love and beauty and you just gotta dance.