If this doesn’t raise your spirits, the Nazis win

Scene from An American in Paris, presented by Broadway in Columbus (Photos by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

Love is more important than art, a character proclaims during a key moment from An American in Paris. While that’s undoubtedly true, it’s art that makes the musical so memorable.

Christopher Wheeldon’s direction and choreography combine with Bob Crowley’s set and costumes, Natasha Katz’s lighting and, most of all, George and Ira Gershwin’s ageless jazz tunes to create multiple gifts for the eyes and ears. As for the love story at its center, it mostly amounts to the colorless glue that holds it all together.

Based on the 1951 film about an American (Gene Kelly) who woos a reluctant Frenchwoman (Leslie Caron), the musical took an unconventional path to its 2015 Broadway premiere. It debuted in late 2014 in Paris, where it created a stir despite the language barrier. In addition to its glorious musical numbers, Parisians likely were attracted to its rejiggered plot and setting.

Book writer Craig Lucas moves the tale back to 1945, when the City of Light is struggling to regain its spirit after the dark years of Nazi occupation. Memories of the war affect two central characters in different ways: Jewish American composer Adam Hochberg (Matthew Scott) is so traumatized that he can write only dirges that fit in with his gloomy view of life. In contrast, Frenchman Henri Baurel (Ben Michael) is determined to move beyond his own war experiences by fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a song-and-dance man.

Unbeknownst to them, Adam and Henri are united by their mutual love of a ballet dancer named Lise Dassin (Allison Walsh). Nor do they know that Lise has a third admirer in the form of American G.I.-turned-artist Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox). Complicating things even further, Jerry attracts the attention of wealthy benefactor Milo Davenport (Kirsten Scott), who clearly expects sexual favors in return for her valuable patronage.

McGee Maddox and Allison Walsh as Jerry and Lise, the characters played by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in the original 1951 film version 

Jerry and Lise are the people we’re supposed to care about the most, so it’s disappointing that Maddox and Walsh generate so few romantic sparks. Making up for this in spades, both are lithe dancers and competent singers, as they prove over and over again throughout. (Note: Kyle Robinson fills in as Jerry on Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening, while Deanna Doyle plays Lise during the Sunday matinee.)

More interesting than the two romantic leads are the dramatic arcs undergone by Adam and Henri, particularly during Act 2. In fact, the second act surpasses its predecessor in terms of both drama and spectacle.

Two late-arriving song-and-dance numbers are alone worth the price of admission: “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” led by Henri and Adam; and “An American in Paris,” a surreally amazing piece featuring Lise, her ballet partner (Kevin A. Cosculluela) and the rest of the company. Both are complemented by set designer Crowley’s most sublime creations and the Gershwins’ most powerful melodies.

Other classic tunes include “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “’S Wonderful” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” All are accompanied in a full-throated style by a massive band conducted by David Andrews Rogers.

After premiering on Broadway in early 2015, An American in Paris won Tonys for its choreography, lighting, orchestration and scenic design. The touring version excels in those same areas, making it an awe-inspiring experience for anyone who ventures to the Ohio Theatre this week.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present An American in Paris through March 11 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State, Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $31-$104. 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Advertisements

Fitzgerald’s Gatsby reborn as a dancing lesbian

The cast of Broken Whispers includes (clockwise from front): Miriam King as Daisy, Amy Lay as Gatsby, Nikki Fagin as Jordan, Robbie Nance as Nick and Andy Ankrom as Tom. (Shadowbox Live photo)
The cast of Broken Whispers includes (clockwise from front): Miriam King as Daisy, Amy Lay as Gatsby, Nikki Fagin as Jordan, Robbie Nance as Nick and Andy Ankrom as Tom. (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Is it possible to sprain your hands by clapping too hard? I came close to doing that during Shadowbox Live’s new dance-centered drama, Broken Whispers.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Broken Whispers is Shadowbox’s take on The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s cautionary tale of envy and obsessive desire in the Roaring ’20s. Like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece has come to define a troubling era. Just as Twain’s young narrator stands in for America’s conscience in slave-holding, pre-Civil War America, Gatsby narrator Nick Carraway serves as our conscience and guide in a decade marked by greed and irresponsible hedonism.

Does Shadowbox’s version match the brilliance and depth of Fitzgerald’s original? Not overall, but it reimagines the tale in a way that is brilliantly innovative.

Whispers differs from Gatsby in several ways, but the most obvious is that the title character has been changed from a man who made his fortune from bootlegging to a woman who made it from running a brothel. Despite this, it sticks remarkably close to Fitzgerald’s tragic plot.

Our guide and narrator remains Nick (Robbie Nance), a young man who’s struggling to establish a career selling bonds in New York. Though not rich himself, he’s pulled into the lives of the wealthy by his cousin, Daisy Buchannan (Miriam King), and her husband, Tom (Andy Ankrom), as well as Nick’s high-living neighbor, Gatsby (Amy Lay).

It’s through Daisy and Tom that Nick meets and starts a relationship with a woman named Jordan Baker (Nikki Fagin). And it’s through Gatsby that Nick becomes involved in a dangerous attempt to reclaim the past.

Gatsby once had a secret fling with Daisy, but it ended when Daisy married Tom. Now that Gatsby has made her fortune, she believes she can win Daisy back, especially since Tom is a serial cheater who often deserts her for his married mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Edelyn Parker).

Changing a beloved novel into a dance-centered stage piece, and changing the sex of its protagonist along the way, is a tricky endeavor. That director Stev Guyer accomplishes it so well is a tribute to the skill of his cast and many collaborators, especially choreographer Katy Psenicka, writer Jimmy Mak and music director Matt Hahn.

Gatsby (Amy Lay, left) gets reacquainted with the love of her life, Daisy (Miriam King). (Shadowbox Live photo)
Gatsby (Amy Lay, left) gets reacquainted with the love of her life, Daisy (Miriam King). (Shadowbox Live photo)

First of all, the cast is great, especially when it’s expressing itself through dance. Psenicka’s choreography is stellar throughout, but if I had to pick my favorite sequences, it would be the two that define the rekindled relationship of Lay’s Gatsby and King’s Daisy. At first they dance lithely and joyfully to the tune of Foo Fighters’ Everlong. Later, suggesting a more intimate encounter, they perform moves that are both athletic and sensual to the strains of Sade’s The Sweetest Taboo.

In addition to dance, the actors rely largely on facial expressions and posture to define their characters, who are given only minimal dialogue. For the most part, they succeed.

Nance easily communicates the discomfort Nick feels as he’s forced into one morally questionable situation after another. As Tom, the philanderer who sometimes puts him in those situations, Ankrom wears the personality of a man who assumes his gender and wealth allow him to walk over anyone to get what he wants.

Like her literary counterpart, Lay’s Gatsby is self-contained mystery whose main attribute is her optimism that her eternal love for Daisy will be vindicated. Meanwhile, Fagin’s Jordan—unlike her own literary counterpart, whose motivations are hard to pin down—emerges as an instigator who takes perverse pleasure in others’ misfortunes.

My main disappointment among the characterizations is that King’s Daisy doesn’t exhibit as much charm as she does in the novel, perhaps because Shadowbox’s adaptation eliminates the flirtatious dialogue with which Fitzgerald defines her. This Daisy mainly comes across as a victim of Tom’s unfaithfulness, making it easy to understand her susceptibility to Gatsby’s advances but hard to understand why Gatsby is devoted to her in the first place.

As for the music, it’s just as impressive as the choreography it accompanies. Surprisingly, Shadowbox has opted to use relatively recent cover songs rather than actual music from the 1920s, but the songs are cleverly arranged and performed in a way that makes them seem almost era-appropriate. In the first song, Muse’s Feeling Good, vocalist Stephanie Shull’s voice even seems to be amplified in a way that suggests the tinny sound equipment of the period.

Shull is just one of the many fine singers featured. Others include Julie Klein, Noelle Grandison, Stacie Boord, Lukas Tomasacci, Guyer and Kevin Sweeney, who holds forth while manning the band’s keyboard. All are impeccable, but the closest thing to a showstopper occurs when Leah Haviland accompanies a Tom-Myrtle dance duet with the gorgeous Radiohead lament Creep.

Remember when I wondered whether you can sprain your hands by clapping too hard? This is why.

Haviland also sings the lead vocals when the band gives an inspired performance of the familiar George Michael hit Careless Whisper. Keyboardist Sweeney leads his fellow musicians through abrupt changes of tempo and rhythm as Fagin and other dancers perform the Charleston at one of Gatsby’s wild parties. Amazing!

Amazing in general is the amount of sound that comes from leader/guitarist Hahn’s four-piece band, which also includes standup bassist Buzz Crisafulli and drummer Brandon “Dreds” Smith.

Behind the scenes, Aaron Pelzak’s dark lighting sets the proper mood, while images projected on a video screen establish the proper place, allowing the production to skip over scene changes. A quartet of costume designers clothe the characters appropriately and often beautifully.

Seeing Broken Whispers is no substitute for reading The Great Gatsby. For one thing, the show only hints at the class consciousness and envy that are at the heart of the novel. But there’s no reason why you can’t do both. In fact, knocking off the novel—something that can be accomplished in an afternoon—may well add to your appreciation of one of Shadowbox’s most remarkable achievements yet.

Broken Whispers continues through Nov. 10 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, plus 7 p.m. this Sunday (Aug. 28). Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.