Call it a joyous homecoming. The national tour of Broadway’s “An American in Paris” has opened at the Hollywood Pantages, returning the story, characters and George Gershwin music to the theater where the 1951 film version won the Oscar for best picture. The stage show runs for three weeks here before moving to Orange County.
As at many homecomings, the players in this 2015 adaption have changed in unexpected ways. They still tell the story of a soldier who stays in France after World War II to become a painter and of his love for an enigmatic gamine. But Craig Lucas’ book now grounds that story in the turbulent and sometimes horrific aftermath of the war, giving all of the characters backstories that the film glossed over.
What’s more, the story is now told primarily through dancing — ballet-based dancing that won Christopher Wheeldon a Tony for choreography. Besides setting large-scale contemporary classicism to the 1928 Gershwin symphonic poem that gives the show and film their titles, director-choreographer Wheeldon has used other Gershwin orchestral works and a number of songs to generate a physical urgency that’s matched only by the amazingly fluid set designs by Bob Crowley. Augmented by projections, those designs not only provide moment-by-moment cinematic changes of perspective but bring us deeply into the fantasies of the leading characters. Astute lighting by Natasha Katz runs from gloom to glitz.
The film was shaped largely by and for Gene Kelly as the ex-soldier, but the stage show goes out of its way to erase him. All his showpiece songs are gone or reassigned, and in their place come numbers often associated with Fred Astaire. (The character’s first solo is “Beginner’s Luck,” composed for Astaire in “Shall We Dance.”) Influenced by Mondrian, the climactic ballet no longer is his fantasy but the gamine’s, and he even gets a deserved put-down for being an ugly American. As for the young woman (Leslie Caron in the film), she’s now an emerging dance star with a secret that kept her hidden throughout the war.
Garen Scribner and Sara Esty served as alternates during the Broadway run and now bring to these starring roles great surety as well as a disarming freshness. Typically, Wheeldon assigns them an overload of ungainly lifts, but the jazz accents he puts into their torsos not only are exciting but superbly Gershwinesque. Scribner’s brilliant circuit of high turning-leaps near the end would stop any other show but this. (Ryan Steele and Leigh-Ann Esty assume these roles at some performances.)
As Scribner’s chief rival, Nick Spangler is supposed to be a poor singer but is allowed to fail at that task in the elaborate “Stairway to Paradise” production number. Emily Ferranti is properly predatory as a rich dilettante, but Nina Foch brought more class to the character in the film.
You have to get used to reedy singing from all these worthies at the Pantages, but not from Etai Benson in an imaginatively deepened reconception of the composer role embodied by Oscar Levant in the film. Benson possesses not only the most robust voice of the cast but also acting strengths that make what used to be a peripheral pleasure one of the show’s major indexes to lost love.
Gayton Scott and Don Noble serve as comic foils to the principals, but it’s the large, accomplished ballet corps and the orchestra (some of it locally recruited) that help make this show the thrilling hit it was designed to be. David Andrews Rogers conducts.
In the two years since “An American in Paris” opened on Broadway, the image of Americans, and of Paris, have been tested in dangerous social and political crosscurrents. Are Americans now nothing but bullies and Paris only a target? This show suggests an alternative, urging us to create art out of calamity and to accept love wherever we find it. It may not be exactly what MGM shot in Culver City, but it’s got heart and truth on its side as well as music that will always be one of our culture’s supreme achievements.
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‘An American in Paris’
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends April 9.
Where: Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.
Tickets: From $49 (subject to change)
Information: (800) 982-2787; www.hollywoodpantages.com
Also playing: April 25-May 7 at Segerstrom Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; from $29 (subject to change); (714) 556-2787; www.scfta.org
Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.