S’Just All Right: Gershwin score saves American in Paris

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The touring company of An American in Paris, based on the 1951 movie of the same name, dances into the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season. The score features glorious work by George and Ira Gershwin as well as choreography and direction by Christopher Wheeldon. Photos by Matthew Murphy

The highlight of the 1951 movie An American in Paris is the glorious 17-minute ballet at the end featuring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dancing through an artist’s version of Paris (think Renoir, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec) to the strains of the glorious horn-honking title composition by George Gershwin. Movie musicals have rarely been so transporting, especially in the seamless blend of classical and modern dance with musical theater.

Given that the movie has become a beloved classic, it makes perfect sense that the Gershwin estate would want to capitalize on the score and keep it alive in a new stage adaptation. Much like they did with Crazy for You (and to a lesser extent with Nice Work If You Can Get It), the idea would be to fold in other songs by George & Ira Gershwin to create a whole new property.

The resulting show, adapted by writer Craig Lucas and directed and choreographed by a member of ballet world royalty, Christopher Wheeldon, is a decidedly uneven affair. It wants to be part serious musical (the darkness of Paris after World War II and the Nazi occupation), part musical comedy (three guys in love with one girl!) and part contemporary and ballet dance show. Call it a ballet-sical (mullet doesn’t quite work). Whatever it is, it doesn’t quite work.

After a short tryout in Paris, An American in Paris opened on Broadway in 2015 and ran for about a year and a half before embarking on the national tour that brings the production to San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season.

It’s a handsome production thanks to some beautiful, evocative sets and costumes by Bob Crowley and gorgeous lighting by Natasha Katz. There are abundant, mostly unnecessary projections (by 59 Productions) that don’t bring a whole lot the soirée other than a sense that we’re watching a 1940s version of Inception, but when they work, as with the sparking light on the waters of the Seine, they’re lovely. Crowley really gets to let loose in the big production number for “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” with a dazzling art deco fantasia on the Chrysler Building that underscores the evening’s most thoroughly enjoyable musical theater experience.

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The show’s opening, set to “Concerto in F,” indicates that this is going to be something special. With a grim color palette and intricate choreographic storytelling, we are immersed into the world of post-war Paris, where denizens are slow to emerge from the Nazi oppression and the general horror of the war. There’s violence, cruelty and grace woven into this rather startling prologue. But then we get into “I Got Rhythm” and introduction of the characters, so we shift right into musical theater mode trying to replicate the ebullience of Crazy for You choreographer Susan Stroman and coming up short.

There’s a sloppiness to this production that affects the acting – don’t even ask about the French accents – and the singing and even some of the dancing.

The revised book shifts the action from the Paris art world into the ballet world, which makes sense so there can be more dancing, but characters are under-developed and relationships are cursory at best. The bright light of the cast is Sara Esty as Lise Dassin, a ballet dancer who catches the eye of two Americans (McGee Maddox as GI Jerry Mulligan and Stephen Brower as composer Adam Hochberg) and one Frenchman (Nick Spangler as Henri Baurel), who all, conveniently, end up being buddies. There’s another brash American, Emily Ferranti as moneyed Milo Davenport, who attempts to grab the spotlight occasionally, but it’s Esty’s Lise who dances away – literally – with the nearly 2 1/2-hour show.

She’s a strong actor, singer (her “The Man I Love” is charming) and dancer, which is a tall order, and not one others match as gracefully or forcefully as she. Her performance in the “An American in Paris” ballet, which here is presented as a ballet company’s dance performance and not as a Parisian fantasy, is absolutely beautiful.

And there’s just no escaping the fact that Gershwin songs and music can carry an evening no matter what else is going on. “But Not for Me,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “I Got Rhythm,” “S’Wonderful” – it’s a feast of great American songwriting. And then you’ve got more classically leaning pieces from George – “Second Prelude,” “Second Rhapsody/Cuban Overture” and, of course, the title piece, and you just can’t lose. Rob Fisher’s arrangements (with orchestrations by Christopher Austin and Bill Elliott and dance arrangements by Sam Davis) work hard to make a 14-piece band sound like a symphony orchestra or a jazz band and mostly succeed.

The details of this stage American in Paris may not linger, but the beauty of its design and the glory of its music are here to stay.

An American in Paris continues through Oct. 8 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$214. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com

Charm and romance bubble up in Berkeley Rep’s Amélie

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Samantha Barks is Amélie with the cast of Amélie, A New Musical, a world premiere based on the French film of the same name. Below: Barks’ Amélie inches ever nearer to a romance with Nino, played by Adam Chanler-Berat. Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com

In this age of illusory connection, a story of isolation told through music seems more necessary than ever. Connection with the world and people in it is a central theme of Amélie, the whimsical 2001 film, and it’s even more pronounced in the world-premiere musical version of the story now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre.

The whimsy has been turned down (not altogether), but the charm and romance have increased in this tuneful adaptation with a book by playwright Craig Lucas and a delightful score by Daniel Messé (of the band Hem) and lyrics by Messé and Nathan Tysen. Told in a fleet, occasionally bumpy 100 minutes, this Amélie boasts an appealing ensemble under the direction of Pam MacKinnon, making her musical directorial debut, and romantic leads who leaven the charm with the pulse of real life.

After a rocky opening number that describes how we’re all leaving trails of breadcrumbs for others to follow all the while tracking the flight of a fly, the show kicks into gear with the story of a bright, spirited little girl named Amélie (Savvy Crawford in a dynamic performance), whose distant, over-cautious parents (Alison Cimmet and John Hickok) mistake her joie de vivre and lively heartbeat as illness. So they decide to minimize her connection with the world by home schooling her.

This isolation has a debilitating effect no the child that will affect her as an adult, but it does allow her to bond with an unlikely pet – a goldfish named Fluffy – and inspires a number that provides the first indication that Amélie will march to its own musical beat. The silly puppetry and vivacious choreography (by Sam Pinkleton) strike just the right notes of comedy and whimsy, even in the face of sudden tragedy.

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When Amélie grows up and becomes the wonderful British actor Samantha Barks, we see her as an intensely shy young woman show somehow found the wherewithal to move away from home and start a life for herself in the Montmartre district of Paris, where she’s a waitress in the Café des 2 Moulins.

Of the assorted characters in Amélie’s life, the one that makes the biggest impression is the Man of Glass, an elderly artist named Dufayel (Tony Sheldon) show studio Amélie can spy on from her apartment (she has been an inveterate spier and skulker since childhood). Each year, Dufayel, whose brittle bones mean everything around him must be padded, copies the same Renoir painting and gets everything right except the woman in the center who is looking at the artist.

Dufayel becomes a sort of Jiminy Cricket character in Amélie’s life as she begins making broader overtures in the world, meddling in people’s lives in the name of anonymous good deeds.

Partly inspired by the death of Princess Diana, Amélie begins following various breadcrumb trails and slowly finds a place for herself in the world, which includes a hesitant romance with an offbeat young man named Nino (the wonderful Adam Chanler-Berat), who compiles people’s rejected photo booth photos.

Amélie is the kind of musical that has the audacity not only to care about the beating of the human heart but to depict that beating with hearts and flashes of light. There’s a little sappiness around the edges here, but the sweetness is earned and intercut with enough humor and theatricality to keep it grounded.

The score by Messé and Tysen provides abundant pleasure, although a strange comic number that spins Elton John’s performance of “Candle in the Wind” at Diana’s funeral into a sort of gospel nightmare for Amélie begins in good humor and verges toward the offensive.

One of the stand-out numbers is performed by three of Amélie’s chums at the café – Carla Duren as Gina, Maria-Christina Oliveras as Suzanne and Alyse Alan Louis as Georgette – as they make sure that Nino’s intentions toward their friend are honorable.

One problem with the show is that you really need to have seen the movie to fully get it. Lyrics and plot points go by in a hurry, and without any familiarity, it’s kind of a blur, especially when we’re expected to know the finer points of Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, which is explained in a number that involves projections and diagrams but is still confusing. It has something to do with never getting anywhere because you have to get halfway first, and it must reflect Amélie’s difficulty breaking out of her constrained world. But it definitely adds to the confusion.

The central romance, however charmingly portrayed, also comes across as contrived, especially when the lovers’ ultimate connection keeps getting delayed and avoided to the point of wanting to call the whole thing off. By the time they get to their tender duet it’s not quite clear why they should be together other than its having been decreed by the script and the strictures of romantic comedy.

Amélie falls somewhere between tradition and innovation, folk and pop, delightful and frustrating. As new musicals go, it’s got the kind of vibrant, heartfelt spirit that Amélie’s parents would mistake for a disorder, but it’s a lovely show that, with more creative tinkering, should go on to have a long, charming life.

[bonus interviews]
I interviewed much of the creative team behind Amélie, A New Musical for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Amélie, A New Musical continues an extended run through Oct. 18 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.