‘An American in Paris’ dances into Dayton

“An American in Paris” will be on stage at the Schuster Center Nov. 7-12. CONTRIBUTED

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“An American in Paris” will be on stage at the Schuster Center Nov. 7-12. CONTRIBUTED

Romatic Broadway musical on stage at the Schuster

With all of the heartache in the news, can you think of a better time to see a joyful Broadway musical filled with beautiful dance sequences?

Folks in the Miami Valley who love dance have been eagerly awaiting the Broadway version of “An American in Paris.” The show, which opened on Broadway in 2015, was heralded not only for its popular Gershwin tunes but for the terrific dancing and choreography that made it the most honored musical of 2015.

The story, inspired by the 1951 Academy Award-winning film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, centers around a World War II veteran and struggling artist who comes to Paris and falls in love with a beautiful French girl. When the musical opened on Broadway, it won four Tony awards and was named Best Musical of the year by both the Drama League and the Outer Critics Circle. It was adapted for the stage by British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon with book by Craig Lucas.

You’ll hum along to the memorable songs by George and Ira Gershwin including “I Got Rhythm,” ” ‘S Wonderful” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me. ” Orchestral music that’s been added includes “Concerto in F,” “2nd Prelude,” “2nd Rhapsody” and “An American in Paris.”

When the show opened in New York, New York Times critic Charles Isherwood was one of many who couldn’t stop raving. “This gorgeously danced — and just plain gorgeous — production pays loving tribute to the 1951 movie, to the marriage of music and movement, and to cherished notions about romance that have been a defining element of the American musical theater practically since its inception,” Isherwood wrote. ” Just about everything in this happily dance-drunk show moves with a spring in its step, as if the newly liberated Paris after World War II were an enchanted place in which the laws of gravity no longer applied. Even the elegant buildings on the grand boulevards appear to take flight.”

Meet Craig Lucas

Playwright Craig Lucas, who received the Tony Award nomination for his scripts for “An American in Paris,” ” Light in the Piazza,” and “Prelude to a Kiss,” was also nominated for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Prelude to a Kiss.”

Lucas says when the stage version of “An American in Paris” first opened — first in Paris, then in New York — it wasn’t like any other show at the time. “Christopher Wheeldon is a major choreographer in the world so the level of dance is so high and so wonderful for telling a story and revealing character,” says Lucas. “He took Gene Kelly’s wonderful idea — the last 15 minutes of the movie — and expanded it to two other ballets.”

Because the story is set in the world of a Parisian ballet company, there is a lot of dancing ranging from ballet to tap. That requires trained dancers and a level of choreography, he says, that’s very expressive and a lot more difficult to realize.

“For me, that was the reason to do it,” Lucas explains. ” Not that I don’t love Gershwin and that material, but the real lure was working with Chris. Part of the fun was working together to see how we could work out a story in each dance, rather than writing a bunch of scenes. It was a two-way process for both of us. It was very fun and interesting.”

The collaborators saw no point in recreating the film on stage. “It’s very popular but it was made and released in the wake of World War II so it was a frivolous movie at the time,” Lucas says. “It raises a lot of questions it doesn’t want to answer because the audiences in the 1950s didn’t want to think about too much that was so daunting about the post-war period in France. It was still too new and hurt terribly.”

But today, Lucas says, he and Wheeldon were able to look more deeply into what it might have been like for Americans in Paris after the war. “Paris was reeling from German occupation and the kind of soldier who would remain in Paris rather than come back to the States was a different kind of person,” he explains. “Maybe it was someone who didn’t want to go home and see their parents and tell them what they had seen and what the had done. Maybe everyone didn’t want to go back to that happy-go-lucky post-war America.”

Because Paris welcomed black Americans and artists were smiled upon, Lucas says, many decided to stay. “This is a story about a couple of GI’s who wanted to be artists, a wealthy American socialite based on Peggy Guggenheim and a couple of Parisian characters, one of whom was a Jew who’d been in hiding during the war.”

It’s a great show for young people, he says, because it’s about young people and what they endured when they were much too young to see and to experience what they saw.

Yet the musical, he says, preserves the joy and exuberance of the film. “There’s a necessity to find joy when your world has been blown apart,” Lucas reflects. “People who have suffered grievously are the most joyous people because they don’t take anything for granted. The show was a great sensation in Paris and it was great to see the Parisians embrace it. There is tremendous love and gratitude between the French and Americans because we helped liberate them from the Nazis. My mother was a French Jew so I found it profoundly meaningful to work on it.”

Dance captain has Dayton connection

Serving as dance captain for the touring musical is Christopher Howard, who previously danced with the Dayton Ballet. Although this is his third national tour, none of the others have brought him back to the Miami Valley.

“Dayton is very special to me because it’s the first company I ever danced with so it was a jumping-off point for my professional dancing career,” he says. “I’m very excited to see the city again and to see the company.”

Howard admits that when he first saw “An American in Paris” in New York, he loved it but was certain he could never be in the show because of the dancing it required, “It’s amazing dance and quite difficult,” he remembers thinking. “Fast forward three years and I’m the one in charge of all the dancers!”

In addition to performing in the show’s ensemble, he’s responsible for all of the dance elements of the musical — from running rehearsals and taking notes to maintaining the integrity of the show so that the performances are consistent from show to show. He’s also responsible for training new dancers.

“It’s much more choreography and dancing that the average Broadway show,” Howard explains. “It’s very challenging and physically demanding. It’s not only Christopher’s distinct style and technique, but dancers also help with the transitions in the show so they are moving pieces on the set.”

The 18 dancers in the show have a mix of dance backgrounds. Some have Broadway experience; some have spent years with major ballet companies. The show includes all kinds of dance — from classical ballet and tap to jazz. “There’s no difference in the caliber of performance we take on tour,” Howard says.

So what does he love so much about this show? “The story is so beautiful and we address social issues that are relevant to our current climate in the United States,” Howard says. “It’s a brilliant interweaving of the storytelling with the dance.”


WANT TO GO?

What: "An American in Paris"

When: Tuesday, Nov. 7 through Sunday, Nov. 12.

Where: Schuster Center, Dayton

Tickets: $25 -$98. Student and military discounts are available. Get tickets online at TicketCenterStage.com, at the Box Office, or by phone at 937-228-3630 or 888-228-3630.

NOTE: Saturday matinee performances of Broadway Series presentations are signed and/or audio interpreted. Please let the ticket agent know at least two weeks before the performance if you would like either of these services when you order your tickets at Ticket Center Stage.

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