You know what they jokingly say about the player-on-player violence of hockey? It goes something like this: We all went to the fight, and a hockey game broke out.
The touring production of “An American in Paris” offers us a similar turn. Audience members watching the show’s Fayetteville debut went to a ballet, and a musical broke out.
Such is the depth and importance of dance to the plot of the musical, which debuted on Broadway in 2016. The current touring productions is at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville through Sunday.
Considering its source material and musical score, the dancing should come as no surprise. “An American in Paris” is based on the 1951 film featuring beloved dancer/actor Gene Kelly. That movie drew inspiration from the 1928 composition “An American in Paris,” by George Gershwin. The climactic scene of the musical is a ballet to this wordless composition.
What: “An American in Paris”
When: Through Feb. 11
Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or tickets.waltonartscenter.org
Gerswhin said his idea for his work was to capture what the buoyancy and movement of Paris might have felt and sounded like to an American tourist. Following that concept, the male protagonist of “An American in Paris” is an American tourist who has just decided to extend his stay. Jerry Mulligan (played in Fayetteville by McGee Maddox) is trying to establish his career as a painter in a city struggling to find its joy again after World War II. He finds a fellow soldier Adam (played by Matthew Scott) in a Parisian café, Adam would like to be an artist too – he’s working as a composer and musical director with Henri (Ben Michael) on a nightclub act. Henri wants to be an artist, too, of course, but he must not tell his parents, who he suspects will be embarrassed at his second career.
Each of these starving artists fall under the spell of Lise (Allison Walsh), a mysterious French woman who arrives late for a ballet tryout Adam is accompanying on piano. She believes her chance to be over, but Adam encourages her to find a spot at the back and continue. Her dancing impresses everyone. Jerry is particularly smitten, but he’s attracted the eye of arts philanthropist Milo Davenport (Kristen Scott). Milo offers to pay for a new season at the ballet but under the condition that Lise get a starring role, Adam compose the music and Jerry design the sets. Most of those criteria are met.
What develops from that starting point is a group of characters longing for something they do not have. Jerry wants Lise. So too does Henri, but he also wants fame. Adam might also want Lise, and Milo wants Jerry. This cat-and-mouse game plays out throughout the second act, with extended breaks for dance sequences.
Your chief takeaway from the show currently in Fayetteville will likely be the precision and expansive nature of the choreography. Christopher Wheeldon, who directed the Broadway version and this tour ensemble, won a Tony for best choreography following the New York City debut. In the show, Jerry rarely walks. He prances and spins and makes entrances. Told to embrace something that will make her dance with joy and light, Lise’s big ballet number as the show reaches its peak consumes the entire stage with movement and grace. Watching Broadway musicals is a nice reminder of just how physically fit the cast members often are, and I was struck last night by the supernatural strength of those onstage Tuesday night.
The musical relies heavily on that strength and a classical Broadway aesthetic. The sets are highly stylized, some filtered through the concept of Jerry’s designs, and still others in the mold of real-life designers Bob Crowley and 59 Productions, which teamed up and won a Tony Award for best scenic design when the show debuted.
Those are considerable strengths, and the cast benefits from experience like that of Allison Walsh, who was the understudy for Lise when the show was on Broadway. That a saving grace, as there’s not much in the plot that would stir passions. It is the kind of love story with consequences that we all know and expect from Broadway shows.
But if you like a little bit of musical with your dancing, this is your show.