Broadway hit comes to the Wharton Center

Blend George and Ira Gershwin’s music, stars like Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron and Oscar Levant and you’ve got yourself a masterpiece of a film. Now, modernize the mix by putting it on the Broadway stage, starring Sara Esty and Matthew Scott, and you’ve got the Tony Award-winning production: “An American in Paris.”

Now, the Greater Lansing area can get a piece of the Broadway hit when it comes to the Wharton Center for Performing Arts next week. We caught up with Allison Walsh, 32, who plays Lise, the play’s leading lady, in its touring version. We asked her about her role, her dance background and more. The Broadway production ended in October of last year. Was it difficult to get back into the swing of things?

This is my third week of shows. It was surprising how natural it came back after a year. I remembered the back stage traffic and all the dancing was still in my body, in my muscle memory. It’s great to be able to come back and solely focus on being lead and heading out the tour. I only got to do it on Broadway 30 times, so to be able to know that I’m going to be sinking my teeth into this role for the next nine months is such a gift. It really opens up a lot of possibilities.

Can audiences expect anything different from this performance versus the film?

It’s interesting, because the film is iconic. It’s a huge part, and so many people recognize the name of it, but truly the music. The Gershwin music that really draws audiences in. Our show really is a brand-new musical, and it’s a totally fresh take on the classic movie because it’s set right post-war, versus in the movie it was made in ’51; it really was escapism. Our show is a little darker, and what was interesting, too, is I actually got to meet Leslie Caron. She came to our show in New York, and she’s still just as elegant and intelligent and tiny [laughs] as you would expect. She truly is a star.

Because of the film’s popularity, did you feel extra pressure in your role?

The role for me, because I watched it for a long time, Sara Esty did it for a long time on Broadway, I learned a lot from her Lise. But I think of it more as an extension of my personality, as a part of me. I’m not trying to copy what [others] did. I’m really trying to knit together my own take on what it is to be a woman who has been in seclusion during the war. She’s seen the horrors of the war in Paris and heard about everything else that’s happened and really become a woman during that time, making her way into the world and finding love at the same time.

Lise actually expresses herself mostly through the dance, and I try to really convey that. Because I love performing and dancing, and in that way, I match up really well with Lise. I do that when I perform the ballet solo. I’m really just trying to let my soul show through to the audience. She’s doing the same thing, and that’s what’s really captivating about her.

You have a long history as a dancer before you became an actress. Where did you get your start?

I became a professional dancer right out of high school, and I danced with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. I’ve been to East Lansing before, I’ve performed in that theater at least once, and I had a nice time there. But I was with the Joffrey Ballet, and I left. I wanted to do some contemporary dance. I moved to Philadelphia, and while I was loving the contemporary world, this wasn’t the right fit either. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted. I went on a whim to the opening call for “An American in Paris” and pretty much booked it right away, and it kind of led me here. It’s amazing because it’s opened so many avenues for me, because not only have I had the privilege of performing this show, but I got to film a TV show in New York, and then I went from “Anastasia” and another Broadway show. It showed me that this is the right path for me. That this combination of classical dance with the performing aspect of musical theater is what I was meant to do.

That was a really cool thing to find out later in my career and a career that’s really short.

That’s true, dancer’s careers are infamously short. Are you drawn to the different method of storytelling in acting?

Yes. I love it. Part of the appeal in taking this role was really being able to go back and really try and take a different approach to the acting scenes in particular, because I had had distance and time to let the books settle. I’ve absorbed so much, even in the last year of being away from the show, and being part of another show and watching those actors and really learning from them.

Does having a dance background inform your acting?

Yes, I’ve loved that aspect of ballet. The Joffrey was always pretty well-known for their theatrical abilities as far as dance storytelling, but it is such a different thing to actually open your mouth, and have control and harness your voice and connect with another actor. Also, I have an accent, so that was a whole different hurdle.

What is your favorite piece to perform, and what are you most excited for the audience to see?

It’s hard for me because the piece I love to perform is the finale. It’s all been building up to this culmination of this celebration of the love and experiences of Lise and Jerry on stage, and it’s just the most beautiful choreography by Chris Wheeldon, and I love dancing it every night.

My partner is super supportive, and I have a good time.

As an audience member, I actually love the opening ballet, the “Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra.”

Especially if you’ve never seen this piece before and you don’t see choreography very often, you don’t really expect that a musical piece will start with a ballet sequence, but it is brilliant. There’s all this moving scenery, the ensemble is moving giant panels and projections on top of that. It’s really Paris coming out of the war, so the palate is dark and ashy. People are a little tense and hunched over, and then, throughout the course of this, there is some of the most beautiful Gershwin music. People start sort of opening up, and the colors lighten up. That one always kind of gets me. It’s beautiful to see.

“An American in Paris” Nov. 14-Nov. 19 Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $25.50. Wharton Center for Performing Arts

750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing. Whartoncenter.com (517) 432-2000