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Review: 'An American in Paris' does Gershwin right, and with sensational dancing

Garen Scribner plays Jerry, an American G.I. in post-war Paris, and Sara Esty plays Lise, an elusive French ballerina, in the musical An American in Paris.

Courtesy of Straz Center

Garen Scribner plays Jerry, an American G.I. in post-war Paris, and Sara Esty plays Lise, an elusive French ballerina, in the musical An American in Paris.

TAMPA — An old movie built around retrofitted show tunes by George and Ira Gershwin got new life last year on Broadway. An American in Paris is now a delightful touring show and a wise holiday extravaganza pick by the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

The show began as a 1951 movie starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. Tunes by the Gershwins make up the score, including I've Got Rhythm, 'S Wonderful, They Can't Take That Away From Me and the instrumental title track.

The book by playwright Craig Lucas opens the show in 1945 post-occupation Paris, as the City of Light struggles to regain its spirit. Scenes unfold in wordless suggestions yet clearly, a bread line or a Nazi collaborator set upon by a mob. One scene blends into the next as middle class residential neighborhood gives way to a corner pub, where aspiring composer Adam Hochberg narrates from his piano bench.

One of Adam's bar buddies, Jerry Mulligan, is another former American G.I. who has stayed in Paris to find himself as an artist. Jerry sells his paintings on the street, trying to keep an American heir at arm's length while accepting her support. A third pal, Frenchman Henri Baurel, comes from a wealthy textile family. The "three musketeers" celebrate their joie de vivre with I've Got Rhythm (a balletic version, not Kelly's tap), an early glimpse of heights that lie in store.

The trio have something else in common. All are smitten by Lise, a prima ballerina who works behind a perfume counter at a department store. Adam can't work up the courage to tell her. Henri wants to marry her, if only to convince his mother he is not gay.

For Jerry, it's love at first sight. She wishes she could reciprocate but can't, for reasons that will later become clear. The tension between them expresses itself beautifully in dance, starting with I've Got Beginner's Luck. Garen Scribner, who plays Jerry, is a former soloist with the San Francisco Ballet. Though he has played both Tony and Riff in West Side Story, acting and singing are relatively new to him at this level, but you wouldn't know it.

As Lise, Sara Esty brings experience as a former soloist with the Miami City Ballet and work with the likes of Jerome Robbins and Twyla Tharp. She aces her solo number, The Man I Love. Their dance scenes drive the rest of the show and give you something to look forward to. The dance sequences between Scribner and Esty, who performed with the Broadway show the entire length of its run, are supposed to be breathtaking and they are.

The real articulation is the movement itself, Christopher Wheeldon's choreography, and set and lighting design that allows Jerry's artistic voice to strengthen visually as the show progresses. The score also makes adroit use of some of the pre-existing Gershwin songs (most for other musicals years earlier), such as the four-part harmony in a dialogue of mismatched pairs (For You, For Me, For Evermore), and the treatment by the Jerry and the ensemble of Fidgety Feet.

Next to all of that, spoken dialogue plays a similar role to songs in similarly old-fashioned musicals, as interesting window dressing or decoration but not the heart of it, which in this case is totally fine. Scribner and Esty are visually stunning, delivering as fine a dance product as you'll likely see performed or even attempted in touring Broadway theater. Other standout performances include Etai Benson as the tough but wizened Adam, Nick Spangler with a fine tenor voice carrying the most demanding vocal role as Henri and Emily Ferranti as the endearingly pushy Milo Davenport, Jerry's would-be financier and lover.

Conflicts work themselves out by the finale, an extended ballet show within a show, which includes some clever "backstage" perspectives, creating the illusion of another audience and performance hall beyond the stage. Unseen musicians in the orchestra pit could take a bow as well. They played as if they had something to play for, as if there was always some final note yet to reach.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

. If you go

An American in Paris

Runs through Sunday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $39-$125. (813) 229-7827. strazcenter.org.

Review: 'An American in Paris' does Gershwin right, and with sensational dancing 12/21/16 [Last modified: Thursday, December 22, 2016 4:47pm]
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