The 1951 movie musical “An American in Paris” — starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, with music and songs by George and Ira Gershwin — is a film classic that was adapted into a Broadway musical just a few years ago. Though the show closed in 2016, it lives on in the form of a national tour, playing now at Bass Concert Hall courtesy of Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts.
“An American in Paris” follows several artists living in Paris immediately after the Nazi occupation of France has ended — Americans Jerry Mulligan and Adam Hochberg, and Frenchman Henri Barrel. Though the three become fast friends, they suffer the misfortune of all falling in love with the same woman, ballet dancer Lise Dassi. Romantic entanglements ensue as all involved work towards the production of a new ballet, funded by Henri’s parents along with American heiress Milo Davenport, whom Jerry begins dating.
Though these convoluted love triangles are classic elements of stage and screen storytelling, it’s impossible to ignore how painfully dated much of the script feels. Adapted by Craig Lucas from the motion picture, the dialogue gives Lise virtually no agency whatsoever; she never expresses her own feelings, but rather has them told to the audience by the men who wish to possess her. Jerry, ostensibly the hero of the story, is the worst of all, coming across less as a young romantic and more as the kind of possessive man who would tell a woman he doesn’t know to smile. From the moment that he refuses to call Lise by her name, and instead dubs her Liza, the script makes it almost impossible to root for Jerry’s romantic overtures.
Fortunately, the production of “An American in Paris” — majestically directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, with a sumptuous adaptation and arrangement of the Gershwins’ music and songs by Rob Fisher — far exceeds the borderline misogynist script.
If one were to eliminate the text entirely, and allow the dancing and mise en scène to tell the whole story, then the courtship between Jerry and Lise becomes infinitely more believable. Wheeldon excels at creating a romantic chemistry between the pair through the melding of their two dance styles.
McGee Maddox, as Jerry, and Allison Walsh, as Lise, are especially strong given that they create likable characters despite the limitations of the script. Also of note are Ben Michael’s delightfully good-natured Henri, Matthew Scott’s sweetly sad-sack Adam and, particularly, Kirsten Scott’s commanding show of strength, nuance and charm as Milo.
Ultimately, despite the limitations of its story, “An American in Paris” is a visual and auditory feast. With kinetic projections from 59 Productions that actually enhance the storytelling (a rarity for such tools on the stage); angular, jutting set pieces (designed by Bob Crowley) that serve in deliberate contrast to the rounded, fluid movements of the dancers; and, of course, the sensuous choreography carried out by world-class dancers and the gorgeous Gershwin music intoned by an astounding orchestra and lush vocalists, there’s not a moment of the production that isn’t a delight to behold, even if the script is more than a little tone-deaf.
“An American in Paris”
When: 8 p.m. May 30-June 2, 2 p.m. June 2, and 1 and 7 p.m. June 3
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive