Theater – An American in Paris

Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2017.

There are a lot of classic movies I haven’t seen.  Or that I haven’t seen all the way through.  The one that drives the Boy the battiest is Casablanca.  That’s meant to be one of the all-time greats, if not the greatest movie, and I have seen the first third, and maybe the end, and I think I fell asleep on a friends couch in high school when we watched it otherwise.  There are other movies he’ll make shocked faces at when I claim to have never seen them, but it’s the classics that boggle his mind the most.  But sometimes, not having seen those movies works in my favor – it allows me to go into adaptations with a fresh mind, untainted by expectations of things being a certain way just because that’s how it was in the movie.  That’s how “An American In Paris” was for me.  I knew some basic things going in – the original movie starred Gene Kelly, and there was Gershwin music.  I happen to think both are terrific, so I was intrigued to see how it formed into a musical.

Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2017.

Well the answer is that it does so very well, but as should be inferred from the Gene Kelly reference, it’s a very dance-heavy musical.  In fact, I’m not sure the last time I was at a show that was so deep in the dance talent.  So often the performers in musicals are dancing in a way that’s interesting, but not particularly difficult or impressive.  You’ll get lots of big groups in choreographed numbers that wow you, but mostly with sheer numbers of people on stage.  With this show, you could truly see the effort and effortlessness that was the dancing.  There were entire musical numbers that were dance alone, with no singing.  And the dance was beautiful.

Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2017.

The young man playing the Gene Kelly character was a particularly good dancer (not surprising, since he’s the star of the show), though was not quite as smooth an actor, nor powerful a singer.  This mold too fits in with what the star of a 1950s style dance musical would be – competent in the things that were less important, and with the standout portion of the part – in this case, dance – truly impressive.  For whatever reason, I cannot remember if the leading lady even sings during this show, but her dancing was also spectacular, and her acting part done perhaps a little better, mostly because she is in one mode of mind for most of the show until the very end, making it a less difficult part to play than one where you must express a wide variety of emotions over the course of the show.

Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2017.

What was truly impressive without any qualifiers was the set and lighting design for the show.  Furniture and small portions of standing backdrop decorated to imply a space were wheeled through to various places onstage and lit to change the mood or setting.  three pieces with windows could be gathered together to along with some tables and a cashiers stand to imply a cafe.  One backdrop with a large modern painting and wallpaper in front of a chaise lounge became part of an elegant apartment.  And with the pieces being on wheels (or on tracks in the stage itself?) the setting for a scene could be changed quickly and easily, and sometimes even become part of the performance.  The first number involves a lot of dancing, and the backdrops move and reveal performers as the music allows.

Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2017.

It’s a good show.  The music is familiar and fun.  The performers are good, and if you focus on their dancing, it’s even better.  The ambiance is terrific.  I’m not sure it’s the kind of musical I would feel drawn to see again, but it was definitely worth my time on a cold December evening.

Details: An American in Paris, at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC, through January 7.  Lots more cities through summer 2018.

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