Drury Lane Theatre
An American in Paris
At the Drury Lane Theatre by Dan Zeff
Oakbrook Terrace–The Drury Lane Theatre gets high marks for ambition in presenting a revival of “An American in Paris.” The musical is based on one of the most fondly remembered movies of the postwar period, the 1951 film starring Gene Kelly. “An American in Paris” is a demanding vehicle, requiring classical ballet quality dancing skills as well as Broadway quality singing and a large multi-talented cast. The stage version opened on Broadway in 2015 and was nominated for a bunch of awards but never reached hit status so it does not arrive at Drury Lane as a presold hit.
“An American in Paris” does benefit from a score consisting of standards from the George and Ira Gershwin songbook. The show’s climax is the 16-minute ballet built on the Gershwin title song. The show is also enriched by songs like “Liza,” “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “’S Wonderful,” “Who Cares,” “But Not for Me,” “Stairway to Paradise,” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” as well as excepts from Gershwin concert pieces like “Concerto in F” and “Cuban Overture.” But in spite of the surefire score, the storyline remains an intractable problem throughout, and whenever the cast isn’t singing and dancing, the evening flattens out into improbability and tedium.
The musical strikes a dramatic and somber feeling in the opening scenes. The time is Paris immediately after the end of World War II in 1945. The Nazis have been defeated after four years of brutal occupation, leaving the city demoralized, bitter, and vengeful. The Drury Lane production conveys the anger and disillusion of the time with startling realism, indicating to the audience that this will not be just another song and dance celebration. Then the plot kicks in, dragging narrative problems with it for the non musical scenes.
The story essentially revolves around three young men, American ex soldiers Adam Hochberg and Jerry Mulligan and Parisian Henri Baurel. Adam is a composer and Jerry wants to be an artist and both establish residence in Paris to launch their careers. Henri is the son of a wealthy French industrialist and wants to be a musical comedy star. The three men become friends, leading to a ludicrously complex and improbable tangle of romantic relationships centering on French ballerina Lise Dassin.
Eventually all three men fall in love with Lise, the two Americans each believing they are in engaged to the young lady who is actually promised to Henri, a man with sexual identity issues.
Lise is committed to Henri in appreciation for life-saving services Henri’s family rendered during the occupation (Lise being Jewish). The romantic stew is further complicated by Milo Davenport, a wealthy American woman who supports the arts. She has eyes for Jerry who has dedicates himself to wooing Lise. Only two out of the pool of five lovers end up happily paired off, for any viewer who cares.
The star of the production is Leigh-Ann Esty, a veteran of touring versions of the show. Esty is a petite young lady who displays splendid ballet skills and a serviceable voice and carries the extended “American in Paris” dance scene. She is partnered by Josh Drake as Jerry Mulligan, who acquits himself nicely as singer, dancer, and actor. The overall acting honors go to Skyler Adams as the cynical composer who provides most of the comedy and overall creates the most three dimensional character in the story. Will Skrip is lumbered with a faux French accent as Henri, like so many of the supporting characters. Erica Evans plays the statuesque Milo Davenport, scoring very well as a singer, dancer, and occasional comedian. But her character seems mostly on board largely to complicate the multiple love stories. I’ve seen Evans in a number of Chicagoland musical productions but I don’t recall her making this positive an impression.
Director-choreographer Lynne Kurdziel-Formato is at her best staging two excellent production numbers in addition to the title piece. The high velocity ensemble “Fidgety Feet” is the best dance scene of the night followed by the glitzy “Stairway to Paradise,” inspired by the famous Radio City pageants.
The designers do their bit to establish the postwar look of the story. Kevin Depinet designed the sets, Karl Green the vast number of period costumes, Lee Fiskness the lighting, Ray Nardelli the sound, and Kevan Loney the atmospheric projections. Chris Sargent conducts the seven-member orchestra. Everyone in the pit plays a multitude of instruments well, but I missed the full strings sound that would really illuminate those Gershwin melodies.
So, credit the Drury Lane artistic brain trust with taking a chance on a show outside the standard Broadway musical repertoire. This is not a production on the cheap. The theater has employed a large multi-talented 27-member ensemble, with a special salute going to the exuberant chorus.
A touring production of “An American in Paris” visited the Chicago Loop in the summer of 2017 and my feeling about the show matched the revival in Oakbrook Terrace—fine dancing and music fighting it out with a tiresome story. So if you can tolerate the talking portion of the show, you should have a rewarding time.
“An American in Paris” gets a rating of.
“An American in Paris” runs through March 29 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane. Performances are Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., Thursday at 1:30 and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $60 to $75. Call (630) 530 0111 or visit DruryLaneTheatre.com.