Timeless is one of those words that gets tossed around for older movies and shows. But “An American in Paris,” the musical now running at the Wharton Center, really is timeless. It may be based on old songs from an old movie, but this production earns the descriptor for making all of its individual elements feel fresh and new. Featuring glittering sets, gorgeous costumes and a stellar cast, “An American in Paris” not only recreates a nostalgic time and place in the past, it just feels timeless.
In case you’re keeping track, the musical is an adaptation of the 1951 film of the same name starring Gene Kelly which itself was the 1928 orchestral composition “An American in Paris” by George and Ira Gershwin.
This stage version with the book written by Craig Lucas maintains the essence of the film and basic story of complicated love in post-war Paris, accompanied by a slew of classic Gershwin songs.
McGee Maddox plays Jerry Mulligan, a former U.S. Army lieutenant who missed his train to stay in Paris. Mulligan is one part of a love quadrangle that includes fellow American Adam Hochberg (Matthew Scott) and Frenchman Henri Baurel (Ben Michael), all pining for a beautiful dancer Lise Dassin (Allison Walsh). Add in Kirsten Scott as wealthy art financier Milo Davenport who is sweet on Mulligan and you have all the makings for heartbreak and redemption.
Maddox looks like an average guy with short brown hair and a big smile but he’s really an extraordinary dancer. He’s matched with skill and chemistry by Walsh who plays the guarded Lise. Maddox and Walsh share abundant stage time but their dance duet in the “An American in Paris” ballet number is enchanting.
As fellow G.I. and pianist/composer Hochberg, Scott adds most of the comic relief as the nice guy who just can’t get the girl. Fellow nice guy Henri may not get the girl either, but he does get one of the show stopping musical numbers “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.” What starts as an unpolished cabaret number soon turns into a decadent fantasy in Henri’s head at the Radio City Music Hall. It’s a Busby Berkeley inspired masterpiece that is made complete with art deco set pieces and crystal adorned spandex.
The rest of the cast, including Scott and the entire ensemble, are tight and incredible, moving sets and changing costumes after virtually every scene.
Choreographer and director Christopher Wheeldon creates a seamless blend of ballet, swing and tap dance throughout. But the Gershwin music informs all of the movements turning Wheeldon’s choreography into a hybrid of jazz and classical styles that perfectly match the music.
Bob Crowley’s set and costume design are just magical. Drawing inspiration from modern and abstract art, jagged surfaces on wheels spin around while video projectors render an impressionist Paris that expand the world of the show without clunky set pieces. Costumes change from Paris pedestrian to nightclub to Mondrianinspired leotards. Every set and costume piece is refreshing and inspiring.
But the primary inspiration and best reason to see the show is the incredible music. Including classic, American songbook songs like “S Wonderful”, “I Got Rhythm” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “An American In Paris” is a reminder of the prolific talents of the Gershwins. It’s also a charming feast for the eyes and ears.
“An American in Paris” Now through Sunday, Nov. 19. 7:30 p.m. Weds.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 2 p.m. Sat.; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun. Tickets start at $43/$29 students Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 432-2000 whartoncenter.com