REVIEW: “AN AMERICAN IN PARIS” — MUSICAL THEATRE WEST @ Carpenter Performing Arts Center
Updated: Apr 18
A Timeless Story of Love and Romance in the Indomitable War-Torn City of Light
LONG BEACH, CA — APRIL 17, 2023
To live and die for dreams and glamour is the inherent promise of “An American in Paris.” That's evident in both Vincent Minnelli’s 1951 film starring Gene Kelly with a George Gershwin score, and award-winning choreographer/director Christopher Wheeldon’s hit Broadway adaptation, currently playing at Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach through April 30th, and presented by Musical Theatre West, Southern California’s premier musical theater company.
Back in the day, Metro Goldwyn Mayer was to film musicals what Michael Jordan is to professional hoops. During the studio's 30-plus Golden Age years, MGM cranked out one lavish hit after another, including “The Wizard of Oz,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “On the Town,” and “An American in Paris,” the latter of which won six Academy Awards in 1952, including Best Picture. Somehow, the stage production took another sixty years to make. But what a smash it was!
Following an engagement at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, “An American in Paris” was adapted for U.S. audiences and opened on Broadway at the Palace Theatre in April, 2015, becoming an endearing triumph overall, garnering four Tony Awards. A compelling factor to that success was the internationally renowned Wheeldon, who was trained at the Royal Ballet School in London.
Of the most distinctive musical numbers from the film, the stage musical retains "I Got Rhythm," "S Wonderful," "I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise," and the titular orchestral piece “Concerto in F Ballet,” but also includes a good number of other Gershwin tunes, classics and rarities like, “The Man I Love” and “Fidgety Feet,” the newest interpolations into the story.
An opening night showgoer said that "An American in Paris" is the “best show we’ve seen at Musical Theatre West,” and another first-time MTW attendee shared that “the cast is incredible, and there truly isn't a bad seat in the house!”
Outrageously charming and supremely talented, one cannot help but admire the charisma and tap-dance mastery leading man Luke Hawkins brings to the stage. You simply cannot take your eyes off the moments of artistic flourish, and there are many to behold.
In fact, for every member of this very spirited cast, from the infectiously tap-happy Mr. Hawkins (Broadway: “Xanadu”) as Jerry to the charismatically subdued Louis Pardo’s (“West Side Story”) Adam to the devilishly winning Michael Bullard’s (Broadway: “Aladdin”) Henri to a beautiful Sareen Tchekmedyian (1st Nat’l Tour: “Anastasia”) as Lise — they are all marvelous, delivering impeccable charm and dynamite chemistry, each bringing a lot of enticement to this celebration of life.
And with a book by Craig Lucas and a creative team including prolific director/choreographer Jeffry Denman (Off-Broadway: Bock and Harnick’s “Rothschild & Sons”), and music director David Lamoureux (“West Side Story,” “The Producers”), who paints exquisitely the music of George and Ira Gershwin, how much better can you get?
This gorgeous production pays loving tribute to the marriage of music and movement, and to cherished notions about romance that have been a defining element of the American musical theater practically since its inception. In a fluid, beautifully picturesque boy-meets-girl affair, Lucas effectively injects nostalgia, charm, smart dancing, happy music, melodious singing, and originality in copious amounts, to witty and vivifying effect.
Costumer Bradley Allen Lock faithfully references the color palette, along with tiny patterns and authentic shape-hugging silhouettes that defined the fashion in Europe at a time when women were hungering for a little color to take their minds off the drab era of post-war. And the expert lighting of Jean-Yves Tessier has perfectly transformed an All-American musical representing a battle-scarred nation rebuilding into a beautifully enchanting and reflective experience.
The story is about Jerry Mulligan, an ex-G.I. portrayed by Mr. Hawkins, who is an avid witness to the city’s reawakening. An aspiring painter, he naturally drinks in everything he sees with bright, inquisitive eyes, and the joy that springs from his new sense of freedom is translated into ebullient movement through dance.
Jerry’s turns and leaps gain velocity when he captures glimpses of a beautiful brunette, Lise Dassin (Ms. Tchekmedyian), slipping quietly through the streets of Paris with a concentrated expression. By coincidence — or perhaps by sheer contrivance — Jerry and Lise are brought together when ex-pat and aspiring composer Adam Hochberg (a dryly funny Mr. Pardo) invites Jerry to sketch dancers at the ballet, where Adam works as a rehearsal pianist. Lise, it turns out, is a dancer who earns a living as a shopgirl.
Charging ahead like a swift horse in a steeplechase, with one vibrant song or dance number following another in heady succession, Jerry woos a diffident Lise at the department store where she works to the jaunty “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” (a winking nod to “Singin’ in the Rain” as umbrellas twirl) and later jokingly suggests she drops her French name when she’s in his company, to the tune of “Liza.” With each new meeting, Jerry and Lise draw closer, as expressed by the increasing intimacy the playwright creates for them, all imbued with an inadvertent subliminal sexuality.
But, just as in the movie, Lise is reluctant to surrender to her impulses. She is attracted to Jerry, but still has allegiance to another man to whom she is attached: Jerry's pal, Henri Baurel, the heir to a textile fortune who secretly aspires to be a nightclub singer.
Henri is portrayed by Michael Bullard, a gifted actor with Broadway and touring credits who here gives a merited breakthrough performance of great sensitivity and charm. And his rich tenor is in another class altogether. Mr. Bullard soars whenever he opens his mouth. He is especially glorious in one of the splashier numbers, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” personifying a small jazz club which blooms into Radio City Music Hall, replete with a high-kicking chorus line, as we watch Henri’s fantasies carry him away.
Other standout performances include Henri’s mother, played with droll imperiousness by Leslie Stevens (La Mirada’s “Grumpy Old Men”), and Martin Kildare’s "dressed to the nines" Monsieur Baurel, who you may remember as Higgins in MTW’s “My Fair Lady.” Also adorned in gorgeous frocks, and perfect as a cool dame with a heart is Milo Davenport (Rebecca Ann Johnson; MTW’s “Big Fish”), an American heiress who has her eye on Jerry. When Jerry resists, Milo counters by promptly whipping out her checkbook to commission Mr. Pardo’s Adam to compose a score for a new ballet production, to star Lise, whose sinuous movement and intuitive connection to the music dazzles just about everyone in the show.
Which leads us to the musical's pinnacle — the dreamy, 14-minute ballet that brings the show to a close with the lovers locked at last in each other’s arms. I will admit, it became a little hard to breathe — not only because the love story was so romantic, but because we rarely see this kind of dancing onstage, and it’s hard to let it go. Every move executed in this pas de deux was poised, eloquent and technically flawless as American G.I. Jerry Mulligan and his beloved Lise hold each other’s gaze as closely as they hold each other’s body, oblivious to the rest of the world.
MUSICAL THEATRE WEST PRESENTS, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS; Music and Lyrics by GEORGE GERSHWIN and IRA GERSHWIN; Book by CRAIG LUCAS; Director/Choreographer JEFFRY DENMAN; Music Director DAVID LAMOUREUX; Scenic Designer DAVID ARSENAULT; Costume Designer BRADLEY ALLEN LOCK; Lighting Designer JEAN-YVES TESSIER; Sound Designer JULIE FERRIN; Projection Designer MICHAEL SALVATORE COMMENDATORE; Wig Designer THERESE LEVASSEUR; Stage Manager DONAVAN DOLAN; Executive Director/Producer PAUL GARMAN; By special arrangement with Elephant Eye Theatrical & Pittsburgh CLO and Théâtre du Châtelet; Produced on Broadway by Stuart Oken Van Kaplan Roy Furman.
With: SAREEN TCHEKMEDYIAN; LUKE HAWKINS; LOUIS PARDO; MICHAEL BULLARD; REBECCA ANN JOHNSON; LESLIE STEVENS; MARTIN KILDARE; SAMANTHA BELL; BIANCO BRANDON; QUINTAN CRAIG; GIOVANNI DA SILVA; MATTI ENDSLEY; BRANDON HALVORSEN; ANTOINE LEE; RYAN PERRY MARKS; KATIE MARSHALL; EMMA PARK; LIZA PICCOLI; SPENCER RAMIREZ; LILIANA RODRIGUEZ; LIZZY SHECK; NICHOLAS SIPES.
Musical Theatre West's production of An American in Paris will continue at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center on select dates, April 20 - April 30, 2023. Running time approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. Tickets start at $20 - $125, and are available for purchase by phone at 562-856-1999 or online at musical.org.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Caught in the Moment Photography