“Culture follows commerce,” one former local museum director noted in describing the art world’s westerly trajectory through history. Central Mesopotamia, ancient Syria, Egypt, Athens, middle Europe, Rome: Their economies emerged like clockwork over the centuries, each followed by explosive growth in the humanities, with Paris and New York jockeying for prominence during World War II.
“There are books,” Hugh Davies concluded in a 2006 magazine article, “about how New York stole the art world and all that stuff” as the conflict drew to its blessed end. In an aside, he agreed that Paris wasn’t going to relinquish its mantle of creativity to the Americans without a fight.
Enter infantryman Jerry Mulligan, the archetype American in Paris from the 1951 movie musical and 2015 Broadway entry of the same name. The atrocities of battle, he’s discovered, also feature their own antidotes — the love of a good woman and the rapture so generously bestowed by a liberated City of Light (not necessarily in that order).
In the current Broadway San Diego entry, Jerry’s story is as compelling as any that has come before — which is to say not very — but the medium is most assuredly the message here amid some absolutely stunning choreography and scene design.
The writers among you will have a complement of second thoughts about An American in Paris: a New Musical. The visual learners will absolutely fall apart at every seam.
It turns out that gentle giant Jerry is a poor man’s Everyman — painting is his outlet for everything good the universe has to offer, and he’s decided to give Paris a try accordingly. Composer friend Adam Hochberg and wannabe hoofer Henri Bauel look on as Jerry hooks up with breathtaking ballerina Lise Dassin; the problems set in when Jerry discovers that Lise is the woman he and Adam have been prodding Henri to propose to.
Henri saved Lise’s family during the Nazi occupation, prompting the latter’s loyalty — but as one thing leads to another, the two can’t fight the fact that departure is the only proper course. Jer gets the girl, and the couple color the Paris night anew as the crazy ol’ River Seine looks on.
It’s postwar Paris, man, that’s how come. . .
This love quadrangle plot features some cute subtext involving ersatz arts patron Henri’s mom and lusty American philanthropist Milo Davenport — but there’s nothing here that’s that particular to this format. Shakespeare tried it a time or two with some success (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, et al.); but then again, Bill was Bill, who had an acumen for the human experience that defies description.
By comparison, Craig Lucas’ book is a little on the contrived side, almost dully mathematical in its progression and its introduction of subtext.
So why not at least couch the thin story in Shakespearean theater and thought? How come the preoccupation with all this modern dancing and painting and international intrigue and sexual energy and George and Ira Gershwin’s bawdy score and Bob Crowley set pieces that capture the landscape from every conceivable angle and stuff? Because it’s postwar Paris, man, that’s how come — the grand old city was bursting at the core with a renewed sense of itself, loopy with the libertine values that only art can convey.
Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and dance arranger Sam Davis have thus guessed correctly at all turns as the cast squeezes every drop from each pirouette and fouetté. McGee Maddox’s Jerry and Sara Esty’s Lise are delights to behold amid their chemistry and actorial values; the 35-member cast carries out its collaborative moves virtually without fault.
Emily Ferranti’s Milo Davenport has a funny siren side as she chases after Jerry, while Gayton Scott’s prissy Madame Baurel expects perfection from everyone but herself. Nick Spangler’s Henri Baurel and Stephen Brower’s Hochberg are as good eggs as you’ll find, their attention lapses no match for their affection for Jerry. (I wish I could effuse about the actors the way I’ve done the dancers, but the story just isn’t there.)
Ryan Steele will play Jerry the matinee of Sept. 9 and the evening of Sept. 10. Leigh-Ann Esty will step into Lise for the Sept. 10 matinee.
You’ll have no trouble recognizing the story’s staple tunes, such as “I Got Rhythm,” “’S Wonderful” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” under music director David Andrews Rogers. The rest of the tech is perfectly fine, as befits a danse magnificat like this one.
A couple years ago, people a lot better than me felt the same way about this show. It won a Best Choreography nod among its four Tony Awards in 2015 — and while that means very little over 30-plus centuries, it does touch on another part of Davies’ observation. According to his calculation, Southern California is enjoying the prime of its artistic life right about now. With Broadway San Diego’s ferocious explosion of bodies and the exquisite visual communication they represent, it’s hard to disagree. My, oh my.
This review is based on the media night performance of Sept. 6. An American in Paris: a New Musical runs through Sept. 10 at Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave. Downtown. $22-$150. 619-570-1100, broadwaysd.com.