In the 1951 film starring Gene Kelly, An American in Paris won six Academy Awards and became one of the most famous musicals in history. Now, Houston audiences can catch its spectacular pageantry at the Hobby Center through March 5.
If you appreciate George and Ira Gershwin’s magnificent music and lyrics accompanied by the best dance performances I have ever seen in a Broadway musical, then cancel your plans, as An American in Paris will leave you reeling at the dance numbers alone. (Spoiler: The finale's 17-minute dance sequence, along with the Piet Mondrian-inspired modernist costumes, are worth the price of the ticket.)
Gershwin’s wonderful Jazz Age score, originally composed in 1928, translates beautifully to the narrative of post-war Paris, where an American soldier-turned-painter falls in love with a beautiful French dancer who is beholden to a wealthy Parisian family for reasons that unfold as the musical progresses. While this production is indebted to the originial film, the live performances are electric in a way that could never be captured on the screen.
George Gershwin characterized his music as “an extended symphonic tone poem,” and An American in Paris certainly fits that bill. Drawing on his personal memories in Paris in the 1920s, the jazz influences are unmistakable. But more than that, it's impressive how seamlessly the score fits the arc of the romantic narrative that leaves the audience guessing the age-old question, "Who gets the girl?" Duty, friendship and romantic love compete with each other, and it is enthralling to watch the dance scenes that epitomize the negotiations between the players in matters of the heart. Gershwin said of his music, “My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.” The music feels entirely American, even if it is set in France.
The costumes, sets and lighting are wonderful, but without the exquisite performances, the dialogue would be hard to sustain on its own. But the music! Classics, like “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love” and “S’Wonderful,” are performed with an energy and intensity that makes the story come alive. You realize why the Gershwins were American geniuses, as their works were lyrically inventive, entertaining and emotionally riveting. This show has the whole package.
Ryan Steele, who played the American in Paris Jerry Mulligan, is simultaneously fluid and athletic in his dance performances and commands the stage with a stylistic originality that stays true to Gene Kelly’s iconic choreography while still feeling fresh and new. Sara Esty, who plays the mysterious French dancer, Lise Dassin, is mesmerizing, whether practicing in a ballet class or starring in the musical's huge ballet performance that is commissioned just for her. (Esty is the recipient of The Princess Grace Fellowship Award for excellence in dance, a foundation that is supported by Houston philanthropist Lynn Wyatt.) What's surprising is that both dancers also have the singing chops to deliver fantastic vocal performances as well. You might have come for the music or the dancing, but in this touring production, you get both in spades.
There are great supporting performances, as well. I loved Etai Benson’s portrayal of composer and fellow veteran Adam Hochberg, and his rendition of “But Not for Me” is a favorite. Nick Spangler and Emily Ferranti also deliver memorable performances as part of the romantic intrigue that surrounds the lives of the hero and heroine.
Audiences won’t forget the dance performances, and will leave with an heightened appreciation for the Gershwins. But there is an added bonus: While most musical theater is entertaining, this musical reminds us that history is real, and that often our romantic choices are at odds with political necessity.
You'll need your dancing shoes before this musical is over. I promise—it’s S’wonderful.
Thru March 5. From $38.50. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. 713-558-2600. tuts.com