OAKBROOK TERRACE, IL—The band was inconsistent. So was some of the tap dancing, and a couple actors’ French accents sounded, well, more like German. If that sounds harsh, it’s because I wanted to get those things out of the way; they’re the only negative things I can say about “An American in Paris,” playing through March 29 at the Drury Lane Theatre. Simply put, this is a terrific production.
Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s Tony Award-winning “American in Paris,” with music by George and Ira Gershwin and book by Craig Lucas, closed in 2016. Its popularity all but confirmed that regional productions would start popping up across the country. But this is a musical that’s hard to get right.
Drury Lane’s “American in Paris” is no out-of-the box national tour; it’s brand new, built specifically for this west suburban venue tucked beside the expressway. It fits like a glove. Gorgeous, cinematic scenic and projection designs created by Kevin Depinet and Kevan Loney are complemented by sculptural, dramatic lighting from Lee Fiskness. Critics say that a lot, “cinematic,” but this design team really knocked it out of the park, capturing something that feels like an enormous soundstage—like the one in which the original “An American in Paris” was filmed as a movie musical in 1951. Add to that exquisite costumes by Karl Green, and the whole show feels part-Hollywood, part-Montmartre, drawing influence from the Paris cityscapes of artists like Claude Monet, Toulouse Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh.
Likewise, Josh Drake and Leigh-Ann Esty harness the spirits of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in the lead roles of Jerry Mulligan, an American GI who rips up his ticket home to pursue an art career in Paris after World War II, and Lise Dassin. Dassin is ballerina conflicted by her love for Jerry and sense of obligation toward Henri Baurel (portrayed by the lovable Will Skrip), whose wealthy family sheltered her during the war.
But of course, it doesn’t start with any of them. A central figure of this musical is Adam Hochberg, another expat and aspiring composer played here by Skyler Adams, who periodically narrates the musical and, like Henri and Jerry, is also in love with Lise. It’s not too far of a stretch to view this tale as semibiographical—a fictional personification of George Gershwin, who wrote his “American in Paris” suite after traveling around Europe with his brother—although Gershwin died before World War II.
Adams imbues his character with charisma and humility, with a kind of awe-shucks attitude that tugs at the heartstrings. It’s one of a handful of archetypes that weaves their way through musicals of the 1950s and ’60s. Adams is the golly-gee-willikers disabled vet, while Jerry is a combination of care free, post-war optimism and a wholesale rejection of the suburbanites who returned home to have babies and live out the American dream. Then of course, there’s the independent and entrepreneurial woman. In “An American in Paris,” that’s Milo Davenport, a wealthy patroness expertly played by Erica Evans.
In fact, the acting, singing and dancing of this cast, joined by a formidable ensemble of very strong dancers, is proof that triple threats really do exist. Esty and a few others swap between pointe shoes and character heels multiple times, making it look as easy as changing a shirt, and myriad costume and set changes are handled effortlessly, with swirling choreography built into the scene changes to make each appear like a bustling Parisian boulevard. The cast, as well as director/choreographer Lynne Kurdziel-Formato, is clearly as comfortable with ballet as with the jazz-influenced big band numbers like Gershwin’s ever-popular “I Got Rhythm.”
That bit about the tap dancing I mentioned at the top? It’s quite clear that the casting prioritized dancers who could sing, and had the chops to wrangle the difficult 20-minute ballet near the end of the musical. It’s the right choice—most actors can fake their way through a time step but there’s no place for bad ballet in “An American in Paris.” The belle of the ball, Esty, spent a decade in Miami City Ballet before joining the ensemble for the first national tour of Wheeldon’s production, subbing in periodically as Lise for her twin sister Sara. Now, Esty gets a show all to herself, though she couldn’t shine like she does without such stellar cast mates, creative choreography, lavish designs and an amazing ensemble. Fortunately, that’s what she’s got.
“An American in Paris” continues through March 29 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. Tickets are $60-$75, at (630) 530-0111 and DruryLaneTheatre.com.
Header photo: Josh Drake (center) and the cast of An American In Paris. Photo credit, Brett Beiner Photography