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THEATER REVIEW An American in Paris
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Craig Lucas ( book ), George & Ira Gershwin ( music/lyrics ). At: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St. Tickets: 800-775-2000;; $24-$95 ( plus fees ). Runs through: Aug. 13

An American in Paris is a drop-dead gorgeous physical presentation that also has easy—if not terribly deep—emotional appeal. Based on the Oscar-winning 1951 film with legendary performances by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, it's set in post-WWII Paris where affable characters live and love in the beautiful City of Lights. Hey: What's not to like?

No one ever wrote better songs than brothers George and Ira Gershwin, which is why so many of them were hits when first introduced in the 1920s-1930s, and have been recycled into "new" musicals such as this one. Ira's lyrics—whether poignant or comic—have genuine wit, charm and originality while George's music still refreshes with its rhythmic drive, melodic invention and uncanny emotional support of Ira's words.

This stage version of An American in Paris doesn't use exactly the same songs as the movie but actually features more Gershwin music, including bits and pieces of George's orchestral works such as "Concerto in F," "Cuban Overture" and his splendid "I Got Rhythm Variations" as well as the title suite. I can't say how much I appreciate a musical that eschews anthems and power ballads in favor of highly ndividual and romantic songs.

The biggest changes to the story ( reworked by book writer Craig Lucas ) are that heroine Lise Dassin ( Sara Esty ) now is a ballerina; her wealthy fiance, Henri Baurel ( Nick Spangler ), now is a would-be song-and-dance performer; composer Adam Hochberg ( Etai Benson ) is a wounded war vet; and ex-pat GI Jerry Mulligan ( McGee Maddox )—a wannabe painter—now has an affair with his patroness, Milo Davenport ( Emily Ferranti ). The changes tighten the male triangle pursuing Lise but don't change the ultimate happy ending for Jerry and Lise.

Above all, this stage version remains what the movie was: a showcase for storytelling through dance ( actually, more so than the movie ). This time, however, the choreography emphasizes ballet—both modern and some classical—as conceived by chorographer and director Christopher Wheeldon, in contrast to Gene Kelly's athletic modern dance vocabulary. It's a switch that does not for a second diminish the work. If anything, the ballet emphasis seems more appropriate for Paris. Also, the execution is fabulous, especially the forceful and engaging work of the tall Maddox, who virtually defines what "line" and "extension" mean in dance, although Esty ain't no slouch, either. The fact that both are strong singers who project romantic chemistry, seals the deal.

Finally, the design elements are stunning and riveting, especially the utterly magical scenic designs in which landscapes of Paris appear to be "drawn" before your very eyes, via a sophisticated projection system in which dreamy clouds constantly roll by. Credit Bob Crowley ( sets/costumes ), 59 Productions ( projections ) and Natasha Katz ( lighting ).

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