How long did it take to fall in love with the stage version of An American in Paris? Just a little more than the few minutes it took for the lone piano on the stage to be dwarfed by the Arc de Triomphe looming in the background and for Parisians to tear down the Nazi swastikas to celebrate the end of World War II.
Then two American soldiers, an artist and composer, join a French friend in singing “I Got Rhythm,” and that was the earliest in an Orpheum musical experience that I could have gone home happy and totally satisfied.
But all that followed simply confirmed the promise of an evening full of dance, romance, Gershwin standards and visual delights highlighted by scenes of the great “City of Lights” along the Seine River.
So, yes, I was smitten before hearing Lise the ballerina (Allison Walsh) sing “The Man I Love” or Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox), the expatriate artist, court her with a lively “Liza,” and even before Maddox, Matthew Scott as Adam and Ben Michael as Henri, a song-and-dance aspirant, join in celebrating their shared fondness for Lise with “S’wonderful, s’marvelous, that you should care for me.”
Probably the most surprising thing about this Omaha Performing Arts show is that it took so many years after the 1951 movie with Gene Kelly as Jerry, the cynical Oscar Levant as Adam and Leslie Caron as the ballerina to get back into the Gershwin songbook and reprise the likes of “But Not For Me,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and those great instrumental compositions by George and Ira, capped off by the title number that features one of the best dance productions to grace the Orpheum stage.
It’s a sheer joy led by the ballerina and the artist, whose high-energy performances make clear why understudies must split the two-show weekend days. I’m not normally entranced by dance, but could have watched Ms. Walsh flash her twinkling legs all evening, and I didn’t even mind that the athletic Maddox wasn’t Gene Kelly.
Readers who don’t share all the memories that make this such a romantic evening for my generation and who don’t know most of the lyrics by heart should still be thrilled by the chance to visit Paris at the end of WWII. It’s a visual feast, thanks especially to the city scenes projected behind fast-moving set pieces.
Watch for the river view of the Seine, with real boats plus the projection, and concentric ripples when Jerry takes an accidental dip. And the Picasso-like art that forms an evolving backdrop for the “American in Paris” dance production.
Supporting the star turns by Walsh and Maddox, Matthew Scott’s portrayal of Adam the composer and Kirsten Scott’s treatment of Milo Davenport, the wealthy American woman who falls for Jerry, are particularly appealing. And Ben Michael, as the Frenchman who prefers show biz to his father’s textile factory, shines in his “Stairway to Paradise” scene.
Keeping in mind that George Gershwin died in the 1930s, and brother Ira and their estate opened the song catalog for picking numbers that would work in this show, the songs seem fitting enough, even when it meant Americanizing Lise to sing “Liza.” And the selections seem much more at home here than when several were squeezed into the musical Crazy for You years later and dropped into a western setting.
An American in Paris runs through Sunday, Feb. 18, as part the Omaha Performing Arts Broadway series at the Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St., with shows at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets, from $35 to $95, are available from ticketomaha.com or by calling 402.345.0606. Military discount for Wednesday and 7 p.m. Sunday show.