Drury Lane's brassier 'An American in Paris' makes leap from ballet to musical theater
"An American in Paris" -- ★ ★ ★ ½
Drury Lane Theatre's dreamy regional premiere of "An American in Paris" takes pains to set itself apart from the Tony Award-winning Broadway production. And one noticeable difference is how Lynne Kurdziel-Formato, a director and choreographer rooted more in the world of musical theater than classical ballet, has given a brassier, showbiz sheen to this stage adaptation of the frothy 1951 Academy Award-winning film musical.
Back in 2014, "An American in Paris" made waves with award-winning British ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon staging its debut at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. He poached dancers from London's Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet for the musical, so the dancing set to heavenly George Gershwin music was on par with the best ballet companies of the world.
Kurdziel-Formato still maintains a strong ballet presence for Drury Lane -- she has to since it's built into the plot of an American G.I. named Jerry Mulligan (Josh Drake, a handsome dancing dynamo) who stays in Paris after World War II to pursue love and life as a visual artist. But Kurdziel-Formato makes more room for brash musical comedy dancing, while trimming other dance numbers for more concise storytelling.
The flirtatious song "I've Got Beginner's Luck" is a prime example. When Jerry pursues an aspiring French ballerina Lise Dassin (the lithe Broadway and ballet veteran Leigh-Ann Esty), Kurdziel-Formato has him causing a commotion at the Galeries Lafayette department store with a rousing tap dance instead of balletic leaping across the counters.
Kurdziel-Formato's approach still works well with Craig Lucas' more serious script adaptation. Lucas raised the dramatic stakes by moving the action up to 1945, when the memories of war and Nazi occupation were still fresh.
For example, American Jewish composer and show narrator Adam Hochberg (a sarcastic and wry Skyler Adams) walks with a limp, a remnant of the war. And the aspiring nightclub singer and French textile heir Henri Baurel (a comically delightful Will Skrip) gets defensive when questions arise over the wartime actions of his wealthy arts patron parents (Caron Buinis and Neil Friedman as the amusingly haughty Madame and Monsieur Baurel).
Erica Evans offers great energy as the flirtatious American socialite Milo Davenport, who has designs on both becoming an esteemed arts patron and Jerry's girlfriend. Sawyer Smith and Cory Goodrich also stand out in a number of roles. Goodrich is especially cutting as the ballet mistress Olga, while Sawyer can burn with withering stares as the imperious choreographer "Mr. Z."
Kurdziel-Formato's beautiful staging hums along with wonderful dancing and costume designer Karl Green's fashion-forward period costumes. Set designer Kevin Depinet, lighting designer Lee Fiskness and projection designer Kevan Loney work well in tandem to conjure the beauty of a rebounding, recently liberated Paris.
One disappointing note comes near the end with the make-or-break title ballet, when the future artistic careers of Lise, Jerry and Sam are put on the line.
Wheeldon made this ballet in the original stage production look like an abstract geometric painting come to life to historically mirror what was considered avant-garde at the time. For Drury Lane, Kurdziel-Formato instead looks backward with an impressionistic story ballet full of kitschy Parisian stereotypes, including cancan dancers and "Madeline" school girls. It's easier to follow, but less reflective of the era's ballet trends.
But the musical is still overwhelmingly entertaining, validating Kurdziel-Formato's decision to tilt Drury Lane's "An American in Paris" more toward musical theater than classical ballet.
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Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630) 530-0111 or drurylane theatre.com
Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday; through March 29
Running time: About two hours 35 minutes, with intermission
Parking: Valet service and free parking garage
Rating: Largely for general audiences