The songwriting duo of George and Ira Gershwin created some of the most classic musical theater soundtracks, including “Funny Face” and “Porgy and Bess.” Some of the brothers’ best work is on display this weekend at the Lied Center for Performing Arts with the national touring production of “An American in Paris.”
Adapted from Vincente Minnelli’s Oscar-winning classic film of the same name starring Gene Kelly, “An American in Paris” follows veteran Jerry Mulligan (Branson Brice), an American who seeks a new start as a painter in post-World War II Paris. He quickly befriends a fellow veteran, pianist Adam Hochberg (TJ Lamando), and an aspiring singer, Frenchman Henri Baurel (Daniel Cardenas).
Jerry falls in love with a French ballerina named Lise (Fiona Claire Huber) — unaware that his friends have also caught feelings. Each member of the trio tries to win Lise’s affections while attempting to find their respective places in the world.
In the original film, the inimitable Kelly sparkled as Jerry in one of his most memorable roles. But it seems as if Brice shares a bit of Kelly’s captivating talents, evoking his charisma and boyish confidence in his performance. It also doesn’t hurt that his dancing is beautiful; he seems to glide more than he walks, turning every small movement into balletic choreography.
His dancing is equaled by Huber, and the pair have palpable chemistry in their scenes together. Their numerous ballet numbers make up for the fact that neither is a particularly standout singer. In fact, there seems to be a direct correlation with how much a character dances and the vocal talents of the actor who plays them. While Brice and Huber dance regularly but are not fantastic vocalists, Lamando and Cardenas only dance a little, but instead have exceptional voices.
In general, the choreography is stunning in this production, which won four Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Choreography — a well-deserved accolade. While Brice and Huber are certainly given the spotlight, the entire ensemble is filled with highly skilled dancers who make the stage light up in songs such as “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” and “An American in Paris.”
The choreography is complemented with simple setpieces that move and rotate to bring Paris to life with both real-life locations and surreal, technicolored settings in the dreamlike ballet sequences. Images of France are also projected onto the backdrops — an interesting use of technology that was sometimes undermined by glitches throughout the performance.
The songs, choreography and visuals of “An American in Paris” work perfectly in tandem with the sweeping romance of the show’s narrative. While certainly lighthearted at moments, underneath the love story is an impactful tale of a city reeling from years of war. Paris is typically thought of as a thriving metropolis filled to the brim with love, art and music, but at the point in time when the show is set, there is much pain underneath the culture because of the damage inflicted by Nazi occupation.
Parisians are a people learning how to be happy again, and it’s fascinating to watch these two expatriates and a Frenchman work through their baggage together, finding themselves in this complicated setting. It’s really an ode to art’s ability to help people escape the hardships of life.
With the soaring songs of the Gershwin brothers accompanied by mesmerizing dancing and visuals, “An American in Paris” is nothing short of an escapist delight.
“An American in Paris” will be performed once more on Feb. 9 at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or at the Lied Center box office.