“An American in Paris” tour arrives at Schuster

Photo by Matthew Murphey: Nick Spangler, as Henri Baurel, tips his hat with the touring An American in Paris troupe

By Tim Smith

The music of George Gershwin is timeless, whether it’s the numerous songs he penned for Broadway musicals with his lyricist brother Ira, or his classical compositions. An American in Paris is one of his most enduring jazz-influenced orchestral works, and was the centerpiece of a classic 1951 movie musical starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. That film was the basis for a Broadway production, which will be presented at the Schuster Center’s Mead Theatre from Nov. 7 through 12.

The Broadway play was inspired by the Academy Award-winning film and adapted for the stage by Christopher Wheeldon, with a book by Craig Lucas. The score was adapted by Rob Fisher. Of the musical numbers in the film, the show retains “I Got Rhythm,” “’S Wonderful,” “Stairway to Paradise,” and the orchestral pieces Concerto in F and “An American in Paris,” with other numbers drawn from the Gershwins’ songbook. It opened on Broadway in 2015 following an engagement in Paris, and won several Tony Awards.

The story is set in the City of Light in 1945, right after the liberation of France. U.S. Army Lieutenant Jerry Mulligan is struck by a mysterious girl after seeing her on the maze-like streets of Paris. Ready to rebuild his life after the war, he deliberately misses his train home and decides to stay in Paris to nurture his passion for painting. He makes his way to a cafe/lodging house, where he meets Adam Hochberg, a fellow veteran and pianist. The two become involved with a ballet impresario, and Jerry eventually finds the girl who mesmerized him on the street.

This production features husband and wife performers Kirsten Scott and Matthew Scott in the supporting roles of Milo Davenport, a wealthy arts patroness, and Adam Hochberg, the lead character’s friend and confidante, respectively. The Dayton City Paper recently spoke with the Broadway veterans about the current production’s similarities to the film that inspired it.

“There’s a great homage to the film,” Matthew Scott says, “but they decided to make the story about a young man who’s disillusioned after the war. This guy’s a torn-up character after the events of the past four years, and he’s trying to figure out life again. There’s quite a bit of ballet throughout, because we’re incorporating the music of ‘An American in Paris,’ but we’ve utilized many of Gershwin’s other songs. This pulls together what George did alone, and also the ones he did with his brother, Ira. Our choreographer has created some absolutely stunning routines for the show.”

George Gershwin composed “An American in Paris” in 1928, and it was inspired by the time he had spent there. It evokes the sights and sounds of the French capital in the 1920s, and is one of his best-known compositions. He scored the piece for the standard instruments of the symphony orchestra plus celesta, saxophones, and automobile horns. Gershwin actually brought back some Parisian taxi horns for the New York premiere of the composition.

Some of the Gershwin tunes worked into the current production include lesser-known songs like “Fidgety Feet,” and more familiar standards like “Who Cares?” “But Not for Me,” “The Man I Love,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”

“I’m sort of a connoisseur of Gershwin but now I’m learning some of his other tunes,” Kirsten Scott says. “Matt and I do a duet of ‘But Not for Me’ in the show. We met in college at Carnegie Mellon, and in one of our classes we had to perform a song. My teacher suggested ‘The Man I Love,’ which was a difficult song for me. Matt and I worked on it together for about an hour. That made it special for me, and now singing it in the show reminds me of falling in love.”

“What’s really cool about doing the show is that our characters only cross paths and don’t really get involved with each other,” Matthew says. “We’re both in our own worlds. This tour is 10 months on the road in a big Broadway musical, then we get to come home after the show and rehash the experience.”

“Neither of us have ever toured before, so we’re getting used to the task of touring,” Kirsten adds. “As actors, we usually get Sunday night off, then Monday we’re boarding a plane or bus for the next town. It’s a pretty quick turnaround. They call Monday the ‘golden day’ because we’re not performing, but it isn’t really a day off.”

Both actors have high expectations that audiences will leave the theatre feeling better about life than when they came in.

“The show in New York was absolutely stunning, and it hasn’t lost its appeal on the road,” Matthew says. “The crew has the incredible task of breaking down the set every week and then reconstructing it in a different setting. They really haven’t scaled back the set on the road, and it looks just as good as it did on the New York stage. It takes place in Paris immediately after the war, after the liberation. You’re kind of immersed in that world, and we’re showing how people were suffering after the liberation of Paris. But there’s great beauty in the show, and I hope audiences leave with that because we could use a little beauty in the world. We want to kind of drown them in beauty and lift their spirits a little.”

“I recently did a production of Ragtime around the same time as the Charlottesville tragedy, and we were very conscious of the theme,” Kirsten says. “With An American in Paris, I would like the audience to model their behavior after Lise, the leading female character. Throughout the whole show, she’s kind of a luminous light of joy. With the craziness our country has been in the past six months, I hope we can have some kindness in the world. As performers, we’re really lucky because for two and a half hours, the audience can be entertained and escape. They can become immersed in the beauty of the show.”

An American in Paris will be presented at the Schuster Center’s Mead Theatre, 1 W. Second St. in Dayton from Nov. 7 through 12. Tickets start at $25. For tickets and show times, please visit TicketCenterStage.com or call 937.228.3630. 

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at TimSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com

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