Fresh retelling of the classic movie’s story, ‘American in Paris’ shines with light and love

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By Crista Zivanovic
Contributor

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From the opening scene of Drury Lane Theatre’s “An American in Paris,” it’s clear this is going to be different from the legendary 1951 Vincente Minnelli movie starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, as American GI and starving-artist Jerry and the lovely, elusive French dancer, Lise.

The contrast is immediate: Drury Lane’s somber post-war Paris is one of confusion, fear and lack, while that of the movie is a lovely, lighthearted City of Light from the start.

But Craig Lucas’ interpretation is not a downer. His “American in Paris,” which opened Feb. 6, is a welcome improvement on the beloved movie classic — a deft reimagining that gives the well-known characters a backstory and depth. The more modern context imbues the story with a meaning not found in the film.

Josh Drake and Erica Evans lead the cast of “An American In Paris” at Drury Lane Theatre. (Photo by Brett Beiner)

On stage, the dread of lingering Nazis lurking around street-corners is palpable, with the dancers fearfully ostracizing someone sporting a swastika on an armband in one tense scene. And many everyday citizens are hungry, not just for better days promised by peace and liberation but also literally, for food, in a city still struggling for basic necessities six years after the war’s end. There are bread lines; some are starving.

Against this backdrop, the story floats along swiftly, the charming singing and dancing and superb George Gershwin songs providing a joyful counterpart to the solemn mood.

Everything about this production is a visual feast. The gorgeous costumes by Karl Green provide the focal point, complemented by both the modest props put to good use, and the colorful changing backgrounds of iconic Paris scenes, which are choreographed as creatively as the show’s dance numbers by Projection Designer Kevan Loney, Set Designer Kevin Depinet, and Lighting Designer Lee Fiskness.

The cast is a pleasure to watch. The story’s narrator, GI Adam, a pianist and composer with a bad leg due to a war injury, is played by Skyler Adams as an adorable mensch unlucky in love, who pines for Lise, played by Leigh-Ann Esty, who dances into GI Jerry’s heart during their daily secret meetings, even though she already has a boyfriend, Henri, who’s conflicted about his career and, possibly, his sexuality (another winsome modern touch added by Lucas).

Josh Drake as Jerry is less of a rake than the movie’s Kelly, and evokes a touching passion for his art and Lise, and Will Skrip is a far more complex yet humorous Henri than the movie’s Georges Guetary.

Further fueling the romantic tension is Milo, played by the charismatic Erica Evans, who uses her wealth to sponsor the season’s ballet that will make Lise a star, and coerce/entice Jerry into her life by promoting his art. Milo’s character, though entitled and enabled by her money, is more sympathetic and appealing than in the movie, another pleasant update to the film, whose Milo was played as a jaded manipulator by Nina Foch.

A new production of “An American in Paris” dazzles on stage through March 29 at Drury Lane Theatre. (Photo by Brett Beiner)

The first-act highlights include “ ‘S Wonderful,” which has all three men professing their love for the same woman – Lise – though none knows they’re singing about the same one. And Esty’s rendition of “The Man I Love” proves her a triple threat – lovely singer and actress as well as formidable dancer.

In a clever homage to the movie, when Adam is introduced in one scene, someone notes, “He’s no Oscar Levant,” playfully referring to the pianist and comedic actor of the ‘40s and ‘50s who played Adam in the movie version.

All the elements and characters come together in Act One’s final scene, with the cast dancing to perfection in “Second Rhapsody/Cuban Overture.” It evokes a contemporary sensibility, artfully signaling the end of the war-ravaged decade and setting the stage for the twists and turns to come, some not in the movie.

Act Two brims with excitement as well as tenderness. Adam and Milo’s duet in “But Not for Me” is achingly bittersweet, and Henri’s no-holds-barred rendition of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” both in the nightclub and his dream sequence is delightful — a perfect prelude to the final “American in Paris” dance/dream sequence by Jerry and Lise, and the company. For those who find the movie version of the last dance too long at 18 minutes, this shorter version should feel just right; though a perfect film finale, it would be too much for the stage.

Whether you love the movie (like me) or never saw it, this captivating production is a must-see. Gershwin’s glorious music and lyrics still feel fresh, and the choreography by Director Lynne Kurdziel-Formato is engaging and evocative.

And the stage version’s happy ending feels more satisfying than the movie’s, most likely because of Lucas’ more dramatic plotlines and the unsettling opening that is rife with uncertainty. This ending feels redemptive, like a resolution to a grim past that, by contrast, is upbeat and full of hope.

FYI: Through March 29, 2020 at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. Tickets start at $60 and are available at 630-530-0111, Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000 or DruryLaneTheatre.com.

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Crista Zivanovic has spent four decades as a veteran journalist and editor writing about and experiencing the arts and culture scene in Miami, Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee, among other favorite cities. She joins Columnist Phil Potempa on-air as a contributor on Potempa’s weekly “Of Notoriety” radio show broadcast on WJOB 1230 AM. She can be reached at Crista.Zivanovic@gmail.com.