I have a confession to make – though many hail the 1951 film "An American in Paris" as Gene Kelly's monumental artistic triumph, I have always found it dull. None of the characters are particularly interesting, and its centerpiece of a 17-minute climatic ballet is visually compelling, but emotionally flat. Compared to films like "Singin' In the Rain" (1952) and "On the Town" (1949), it just can't measure up.
Thankfully, the stage adaptation, now playing at the Hollywood Pantages through April 9th, is a vast improvement. It danced its way to four Tony Awards on Broadway, and it's easy to see why its charms won over audiences. While no one can replace Gene Kelly, the tweaks to plot and greater depth in characters make for an infinitely more dynamic tale.
The plotting is at times, vaguely irritating, and its chief fault is perhaps a direct result of its greatest triumphs. The production works in a richer narrative that calls upon World War II, the Holocaust, and the French Resistance to lend it emotional heft. In deepening the narrative arcs of the supporting characters, it makes Lise (Sara Esty) and Jerry (Garen Scribner) far less compelling. Lise, originally played by Leslie Caron, is a prototype for the manic pixie dream girl who ultimately does claim some agency and shading in the second act, but more often than not, remains a blank slate for men to ascribe their fantasies upon.
Lise (Sara Esty), once played by Leslie Caron, is pursued by three men – Jerry Mulligan (Garen Scribner), composer Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson), and textile-heir/aspiring nightclub singer Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler). Adam and Henri get far more backstory and depth here, both becoming far more likable and worthy competitors for Lise's heart. Indeed, though we are meant to see Henri as a safe choice for Lise, Spangler delivers such a winning performance as a Frenchman and quiet hero with dreams of the stage that it's difficult not to root for him. As a man who has envisioned a life for himself beyond his parents' expectations, he is far more lovable than the already successful nightclub star Henri is in the film.
Benson nearly steals the show with his hang-dog sense of humor and crooked smile as pianist and composer Adam Hochberg – while Henri loves Lise with brotherly affection, Adam falls for her talent and sees her gifts as a dancer most clearly. He realizes his affections for Lise are best placed in his art and his music, but in the meanwhile, he wins the hearts of the audience instead. His sharp wit, strong emotional delivery, and mix of wry humor and raw vulnerability make him a charming and winsome narrator. He also has the benefit of taking the lead on some of Gershwin's most memorable tunes in the show, including "But Not for Me," and his beautiful renditions tug at the heart strings.
With two such lovely challengers for Lise's affections, one can't help but notice that Jerry is actually kind of a jerk. He knows nothing about Lise, but falls in love with her and pursues her relentlessly despite numerous rebuffs. What's more – when he does learn things about her, like her name, he insists on changing them to suit his desires, as in the song "Liza." His inability to overcome his selfish tendencies is exacerbated by a strong performance from Emily Ferranti as Milo Davenport, Jerry's artistic patroness and other love interest. Ferranti imbues Davenport with an inner light and effervescence that makes her utterly wonderful to watch onstage. Wearing Bob Crowley's stunning costume designs as if she walked out of post-war France, she is a breath of fresh air. This is enhanced by her sterling singing voice in the Gershwin ballads she delivers (a privilege the more mature Nina Foch didn't get in the film). Consequently, we feel much more deeply that Jerry is leading her on, and ultimately, breaking her heart. It's hard to root for him to get the girl when he's so busy making assumptions and treating people badly.
This is not to say that Garen Scribner doesn't do a marvelous job in the role. Kelly's shoes are impossibly big ones to fill, and Scribner gives it an admirable go (it's not his fault that the script development left his character wanting). His dancing is truly superb, and he does much in the final third of the play to make up for Jerry's shortcomings. Watching him go toe-to-toe with Sara Esty in the final ballet is a magnificent experience – his body lines are crisp and he executes each move to precision. He's the perfect partner to the exquisite Esty who delights as the prima ballerina of the production.
While both Esty and Scribner have several opportunities to show off their skills as former soloists of the Miami and San Francisco ballets, their talents receive the ideal showcase in the titular second act ballet. While the ballet in the film recounts parts of the plot in balletic imaginings, the ballet here is a show-within-a-show composed by Adam and featuring Jerry's modernist designs. It works infinitely better as a fully realized showpiece than it does as an imagining or "dream ballet." The ballet is a theatrical tour-de-force sweeping you into the lush score of the Gershwins with Christopher Wheeldon's lyrical and inspired choreography and the phenomenal dance abilities of the entire ensemble. For seventeen minutes, you are not seeing a musical, you are at the ballet, and it is a magical, transcendent experience. Esty and Scribner dance their hearts out – perfectly matched here, with Esty executing many lifts and leaps with an effortless grace.
The production also benefits from awe-inspiring scenic design by Bob Crowley and perfectly complementary projections from 59 Productions. Indeed, the sets and projections are so stunning and eye-catching that at times you almost wish to watch them instead of the action onstage (but it's a sign of their success that they never fully detract, only add to the proceedings). You truly feel transported to the banks of the Seine or a bohemian corner café and apartment – the projections work hand in hand with the set pieces (one particular bit of theatrical magic – the river ripples when characters jump into it and fully-constructed punts appear to float lazily on it).
The combined glory of the production's dancers (both its leads and its sterling ensemble), its simultaneously realistic and whimsical sets, and its updated book, which creates a panoply of compelling and warm supporting characters makes it quite the gem. Its rare that people feel the adaptation of a classic betters it, but this is one case where the tweaks in the storytelling make for a far more joyous and dynamic experience. Near the play's climax, Adam has an epiphany, saying, "Life is already so dark. If art can make it brighter, why would you withhold that?" With its lovely choreography and beautiful tale of individuals who seek to make the world brighter with art and love, this production withholds nothing. It may spark minor quibbles, but the overall experience it creates – well, much like the Gershwin tune that poetically closes the show, they can't take that away from me.
"An American in Paris" is playing at the Hollywood Pantages (6233 Hollywood Blvd.) through April 9th. Tickets start at $35. Visit www.HollywoodPantages.com for more information.
Contact Associate Arts and Culture Editor Maureen Lee Lenker at firstname.lastname@example.org