This month, An American In Paris (the play) made its premiere at The Phoenix Theatre Company. We indicate “the play” parenthetically because the legacy of An American In Paris goes back nearly a century before the staged production first opened at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. It was in the late 1920s when George Gershwin, an American expatriate, found himself in post-World War I France, in the company of such artistic giants as René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, Ernest Hemingway, and Cole Porter, to name just a few.
Inspired by his immersion into this eclectic group and in the unique culture of the City of Lights, Gershwin returned home in 1928 and completed his composition, An American In Paris, a jazz-inspired orchestral piece that features four Parisian taxi horns that Gershwin brought back with him. It wasn’t until 2014, a full 86 years later, that the first stage production debuted in the city that inspired it.
Between these two nexus is the 1951 movie, which was the actual inspiration and impetus for the subsequent stage musical. Here is where the original romance between two spirited individuals, an American artist and a French ballet dancer, was first brought to the big screen, and to great acclaim by fans of Gene Kelly and newcomer Leslie Caron. The patrons of The Phoenix Theatre Company are lucky to have Michael Starr and Brianna Abbruzzo in those same roles. These two talented young performers capture the warmth and charm of Kelly and Caron.
This is Abbruzzo’s debut with the Company. She is a graduate of the School of American Ballet. Abbruzzo’s portrayal of Lise Dassin, the ingénue ballerina, is captivating in her doe-eyed innocence. Her lithe movements, even when simply walking across the stage, are graceful and poetic. Accomplished in ballet, Abbruzzo is also an excellent singer.
Michael Starr’s previous leading role was in Singin’ In The Rain (reviewed here). That was his own debut on this stage. It is, of course, another role made famous by the incomparable Gene Kelly. Starr’s Jerry Mulligan is every bit as boisterous and fun-loving as his big-screen counterpart. As with Gene Kelly before him, Starr exhibits an athletic elasticity in his dance movements. The result is a playful display of acrobatics and fancy footwork.
Rounding out the main players are Nicholas Barakos as Adam Hochberg, a battle-scarred, Jewish ex-GI; Lucus Coatney-Murriete as Henri Baurel, a fledgling cabaret performer; and Amanda Lea LaVergne as Milo Davenport, a spunky, self-assured, patron of the arts, especially when the artist is Jerry Mulligan.
As Adam, Barakos serves as our narrator and confidante, helping us to understand the mixed temperament and allegiances of post-WWII France. His character carries a war injury — a permanent limp — and a cynical view of the world that is reflected in his initially uninspired musical compositions. His friendship with the ever-optimistic Henri is the one bright spot in his life, until Jerry enters the scene as a kindred spirit.
As Henri, Coatney-Murriete plays an ambivalent and ambiguous dreamer. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Henri struggles between his dignified blue-blood lineage and the chance to entertain audiences in America. The fleeting allusions to his possible homosexuality, set against the equally ambiguous mores of the 1940s, play havoc with Henri’s already shaky relationship with his aristocratic mother, Madame Baurel (played by longtime Company fixture and accomplished performer María Amorocho).
Amanda LaVergne’s Milo Davenport mirror’s the audacity of the actor’s Texas roots and New York smarts. She sticks out among the local denizens without being pretentious, and easily steamrolls obstacles underfoot. Despite all this, Milo cannot quite get her hooks into Jerry for reasons that become clear to her as the story progresses.
Absent the need for a box office star vehicle (ref: the movie), this production is a true ensemble piece with each main player carrying nearly equal weight in delivering superb singing, dancing, and acting performances. Barakos, Coatney-Murriete, and Starr make an enjoyably misfit trio, each of whom finds reason to fall in love with an inaccessible angel in the embodiment of Abbruzzo’s Lise. But, alas, her heart can only go to one of them.
The music of the show is, of course, by George Gershwin. Lyrics are by Ira Gershwin. Much of the orchestral music, as in the purely ballet and dance numbers, are derived directly from the original orchestral work. Other Gershwin tunes are incorporated, the most recognizable of which being “I Got Rhythm” and “S’Wonderful”. No amount of praise is enough for the excellent Company orchestra, led by conductor Kevin Robert White. We look forward to the near-future expansion of the theatre space, which would further enhance the rich musical performance that regularly accompanies shows of this caliber.