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Review: 'An American in Paris' at the Auditorium Theater

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Maybe it's a side effect of watching movies for a living, but I can't help seeing ways the Hollywood franchise mindset has wormed its way into other art forms -- Broadway being no exception. The prequel, sequel, and spin-off mentality of modern entertainment has led to a compulsive need to explain everything and provide backstory even where none is necessary.

"An American in Paris" (which opened Tuesday night at the Auditorium Theater) isn't technically a prequel to the Oscar-winning, 1951 Technicolor musical starring Gene Kelly, about a love-struck American ex-GI in France. But from its very first moments, the stage adaptation can't help filling in details and giving its characters more tragic pasts, so it sometimes feels as though it's acting as the film's dark, gritty reboot.

The production opens with the City of Light rising from the ashes of war and throwing off the shackles of Nazi occupation, which gets things off to a somber start but at least provides the striking visual of Nazi banners being pulled down by the city's citizens, before transforming into an enormous, flowing French flag as it covers the stage.

The plot then narrows its focus to soldier-turned-struggling-painter, Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox), and his friends: Jewish composer Adam Hochberg (Matthew Scott) and Henri Baurel (Ben Michael), a Frenchman with aspirations of becoming a cabaret singer. In addition to being his buddies, Adam and Henri eventually become Jerry's chief competitors for the affections of Lise (Allison Walsh), a shy French ballet dancer who catches his eye.

Further complications arise in the form of American heiress Milo Davenport (Kirsten Scott) who takes an interest in Jerry and his art, plus a lot of extra business involving Henri's parents and what actions they may or may not have taken during the war.

The most iconic element in the film is its justifiably lauded 18-minute climactic ballet (a sequence which served as one of the chief inspirations for the ending to the 2016 screen musical "La La Land"), a fantasy which takes place entirely in the imagination of Kelly's character. Craig Lucas's book (adapted from Alan Jay Lerner's screenplay) invents a plotline in which the men are commissioned to build a ballet for Lise, giving the impression that the story was reverse engineered just to explain why there would be a ballet in the first place. God forbid a musical end with a lavish dance number just because.

For a work that began as a Golden Age Hollywood musical, the stage adaptation is oddly dour and angsty, attempting to add gravitas to the film's featherweight story. There's a great deal of emphasis on a city recovering from the effects of war -- a subtext which was there in the film, to be sure, but here it's turned into bold, screaming text. There's also the odd choice of making Henri's character gay (as though it isn't enough for him to simply not be the right fit with Lise), building in another source of anxiety to the plot.

"An American in Paris" is undoubtedly well-performed, and if you're going to the show for the dancing, it's unlikely you're going to leave disappointed. Director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon stages these numbers with a panache that suits the classic musical material, and the talented ensemble perform them beautifully.

The show's lovely orchestrations are another highlight; Music Director and Conductor David Andrews Rogers ensures that the orchestra sounds sublime performing George and Ira Gershwin's horn-heavy score. I particularly enjoyed an early moment during "I Got Rhythm" -- arguably the show's most recognizable number -- that segues briefly into a percussive, stripped down version of the song as it's performed by the cast when the power in the bar they're in suddenly goes out.

Amongst the leads, Matthew Scott's turn as the neurotic Adam is the clear standout. He benefits from getting all the best lines, but he takes that gift and runs with it. For their parts, Walsh and Maddox excel in their vocal performances and demanding dance numbers. But even with Lise's tragic past, their characters remain mostly blank slates and their romantic chemistry never truly sparks to life.

Inexplicably, while the book treats its leaden love story with deadly seriousness, it also adds a heaping helping of broad humor, mostly revolving around lazy stereotypes of the snooty French, and Henri's poor grasp of the English language. There's even a "Uranus" joke, which as far as comedic wit goes, is pretty much scraping the bottom of the barrel.

The production makes some inventive use of projections in its scenic design, though I'm still not won over by the technique, which I find tends to put a distance between me and the story as I'm watching it unfold. These elements are at their best when they're deployed in more stylized ways than when simply standing in for concrete settings.

As a film, "An American in Paris" has its own problems (it's hard not to feel badly about the way Nina Foch's heiress character is treated throughout), but it at least understood that its slim story is secondary to the pure magic of watching a pair of swooning lovers dance alongside the Seine. There's a buoyancy in the film's performances that gets sapped away in its translation to stage. This "An American Paris" makes a point to argue that art's most enduring quality is in its ability to lift us up from the darkness, but I couldn't help feeling that this adaptation too often ends up dragging us back down at every opportunity.

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