Dance makes a rare Alley appearance
By NANCY WOZNY
For the Chronicle
The Gershwins' An American in Paris, currently playing at the Alley Theatre, is billed as a new musical comedy. But when the dance steps outnumber the words, I believe the term could be "dansical." Like Moving Out, Contact and 42nd Street, this is a dance-driven show and a first for the Alley Theatre.
"This show utilizes more dance than any production we've done by an overwhelming margin," said Gregory Boyd, Alley's artistic director. "And we don't do dance very often."
Frequent Alley collaborator Ken Ludwig has crafted a prequel to the 1951 MGM movie An American in Paris using classic songs from George and Ira Gershwin. The characters in Ludwig's story burst into tap dance (and song) throughout the show as the choreography is seamlessly woven into the book. Really, who could resist? The Gershwins' music is as danceable as it gets. Even the scenery is moved on the beat.
"The show's focus from the beginning was on dance and comedy along with some heartfelt romance using the Gershwin songs as the engine to create a sense of joy," said Boyd, the show's director. "Dance does that better than any other element of theatrical language."
To get an authentic movie-musical look, the Alley enlisted veteran Broadway choreographer Randy Skinner, who made his mark with the Tony-nominated revival of 42nd Street.
"Randy did a great job doing the original piece for our show, while at the same time honoring the great Gene Kelly choreography from the film," Boyd said.
The show also includes ballet and jazz dance. Finding a versatile batch of dancer/singers required rigorous auditions, said Sara Brians, who has been with the project since the beginning in a variety of roles. Brians, a former Radio City Rockette, worked with Skinner on 42nd Street.
Skinner's signature style incorporates natural arm movements and lots of lateral steps. While the dancer's feet busily pound out Gershwin's complex rhythms in unison, their upper bodies look like they are floating on air. Changing formations keep the audience's attention and often make it seem as if a larger group of dancers is onstage.
The movie's iconic 18-minute ballet scene has been reduced to seven in the play. It's a jampacked seven minutes, though, and includes a reference to Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free.
The dances in musicals often seem an afterthought. But in this work, the characters are always just a step away from solving their dilemmas.
"If a dance number doesn't propel the story forward, then it's not working; the impulse and intention need to serve the plot," Brians said. "Dance is really the engine of this show."
In one pivotal scene, chaos breaks out at a press conference announcing the two leads of the film on live television. The TV host screams, "Will someone please do something?" The ensemble takes that as cue to burst into a rousing reprise of Fascinating Rhythm that just rocks the house.
"Dance is always the solution. That's what dancers do, we save the day," Brians quipped.