‘An American in Paris’ musical stands on its own

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

Musical theatergoers who enjoy old-fashioned Broadway musicals — singing, dancing and lavish sets — are sure to be delighted when “An American in Paris” debuts in Detroit next week.

The national touring production, inspired by the beloved film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, begins a two-week run at the Detroit Opera House on Tuesday. The creative team behind the musical play has adapted the story for a modern audience, while retaining the musical and other charms of the 1951 film, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture.

“It’s a stunningly beautiful show with a very charming storyline,” says Scott Myers, director of corporate sales and marketing for Broadway in Detroit. “The characters are likable, the music is great and the dance and show production values are great.”

Myers, who saw the show on Broadway in 2016, was unfamiliar with the beloved movie. The musical, which garnered 12 Tony Award nominations, will appeal to anyone who likes old-fashioned Broadway musicals, he says.

“You don’t need to see the movie to see the musical,” he says. “The musical stands alone.”

As movie fans may remember, the story centers on Jerry Mulligan (Kelly in the movie), an aspiring artist and World War II veteran who is living in Paris to pursue his ambitions as an artist. There, he falls in love with mysterious French girl, Lise (Caron in the film version). In the stage production, she is a ballerina. Unfortunately, Mulligan doesn’t get the girl; she feels obligated to marry a song-and-dance man who kept her safe during the war.

The film, directed by Vincente Minnelli, is also famous for a 17-minute ballet sequence with Kelly and Caron, set to Gershwin’s composition, “An American in Paris.” Kelly received an Academy Honorary Award for his talents as an actor, singer, dancer and director in the film.

In a departure from the movie, the stage version is set just after World War II ends. Other changes have been made as well. The characters have been rethought and fleshed out and the narrative adapted for a more contemporary audience.

“The show is about the characters’ struggle to find life, to find love, to find happiness again after this dark period,” Christopher Wheeldon, the director and choreographer of the production, explains in “The Making of ‘An American in Paris.’ ” “The movie was made in the early ’50s and the war was still very fresh, so Paris was treated in a kind of hyper-unrealistic way. With the distance of time, there was so much more we could do.”

He notes the team behind the production had the freedom to create Paris in a more realistic, historical context, “and talk about what the city was like after the Nazis left, and how romance and art and music were balm to the wounds.”

In the Broadway production, Paris becomes a character in the show, and like the human characters, is searching for a new beginning. “We see the city open up and breathe again, and take on all the beautiful qualities we associate with it,” Wheeldon says.

Wheeldon won a Tony Award for Best Choreography for “An American in Paris.” Other members of the creative team include Craig Lucas, who wrote the book; and Bob Crowley (set and costume designer) and Natasha Kurtz (lighting designer). Crowley won a Tony Award for Outstanding Set Design.

A valentine to the music of George Gershwin, the show includes the composer’s concert music and the songs he wrote with his brother, Ira Gershwin, a lyricist. Moviegoers will recognize the score, which includes the iconic “I Got Rhythm” and “The Man I Love,” as well as “Liza,” “S Wonderful,” “But Not For Me” and “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.” The score also includes “Concerto in F,” Second Rhapsody/Cuban Overture” and “An American in Paris.”

“An American in Paris” opened to critical acclaim at the Palace Theatre on Broadway in April 2015, after premiering at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. The New York production closed after more than 600 performances — in October 2016. A national tour began that fall.

“If people are looking for a Broadway show, they’re going to love this,” Myers says. “When I saw it, I was really surprised. I was most surprised at how beautiful the ballet parts of it are. The dance numbers are absolutely astounding.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.

‘An American in Paris’

Tuesday-Dec. 10

Detroit Opera House

1526 Broadway, Detroit

Tickets: $29 and up

(800) 982-2787

Broadwayindetroit.com or ticketmaster.com