It takes some boldness and imagination to adapt a classic film like 1951’s An American in Paris for the stage and for a 21st-century audience. Director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and playwright Craig Lucas attempted that task nearly a decade ago with the version that’s currently onstage, briefly, in a touring production at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The result is somewhat mixed.
Kudos to Lucas for bringing more historical context to the story, set in the City of Light near the end of World War II. In ways the film version did not, this adaptation tries to present a sense of the reality on the ground then for Parisians: a blend of joy at being liberated but facing hunger, major adjustments to the change from Nazi rule, and the lingering whiff of suspicion for anyone who might have been judged a collaborator with that regime.
That darkens the show’s opening number, “Concerto Ballet,” where the company gives us a view of life in Paris at that moment. But soon we are introduced to ex-Army Lieutenant Jerry Mulligan (Branson Bice in the Gene Kelly role), who decides to stay in Paree to pursue his dreams of being an artist; his newfound friend Adam (TJ Lamando in the Oscar Levant role), a would-be composer with a limp from the war; and Henri Baurel (Peter Romberg), a Frenchman with a yen to perform in nightclubs that would disturb his conservative parents.
The men become friends—the “Three Musketeers,” they call themselves—which makes it tricky when all three seem to fall for the same young woman, Lise (Camila Rodrigues). She has a dream of her own, too: to be a ballet dancer. But she’s also torn by an obligation to Henri and his parents (the reasons for that come out much later in the show). Will each of these characters manage to follow their hearts? And how does American heiress and arts patron Milo (Kate Gulotta) fit into their plans?
So that’s the setup, with some tweaks to the original, and of course it’s all performed to some memorable George and Ira Gershwin songs, including “I Got Rhythm,” “’S Wonderful,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and more. The touring production boasts some good dancing (essential to this musical), especially on the justly famous “An American in Paris” extended ballet number that helps to climax the second act.
Sometimes, the supporting cast here, especially Gulotta and Lamando, grab our attention more than the ostensible lead couple; and their characters actually have more to hang their performances on than do Jerry and Lise. Bice is an athletic dancer in the mold of Kelly, and Rodriquez an accomplished ballet performer. (Her vocals are less strong, but she really only has one number to sing, “The Man I Love,” so it doesn’t matter too much.) Their romantic pairing isn’t as compelling as it might be. But the production overall is helped by the scenic design (by Randel Wright) and video design (by Jonathan Infante) that makes it easy to change scenes and place us beautifully in the time and place of Paris in 1944, or, in the case of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” at Radio City Music Hall.
The ensemble numbers can occasionally be a bit confusing in intent, and not every innovation made in the adaptation works. But most audiences will probably just revel in the dancing, the beloved Gershwin tunes, and the notion of postwar love along the Seine.
There’s only one more showing of An American in Paris at the Van Wezel, and that’s tonight at 7:30 p.m. So if you are interested, you can get tickets by calling (941) 263-6799 or going online at vanwezel.org.