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Reviews

AMERICAN IN PARIS is a FINE TRIP!

By EVERETT EVANS


The Gershwins' An American in Paris boasts more than enough great music, terrific dancing and solid laughs — with Ken Ludwig's libretto supplying sufficient glue to hold everything together — to constitute an evening's entertainment.

If the Alley Theatre's world premiere is not quite the perfect realization of its premise, well, that cues a few reservations we'll get to momentarily.

Ludwig's basic idea — not a stage version of the famous film An American in Paris, but an invented prequel to the making of the movie — is a sound one.

When Monumental Pictures boss Louis Goldman learns that French music-hall legend Michel Gerard has gone missing days before he's supposed to start shooting a movie in Paris, Goldman sends his prim secretary Rebecca Klemm and yes-man Preston to locate the errant star. Michel, we learn, has a troubled past: He was first in vogue, then out, in Hollywood and, after his wife's death, he no longer cares about making his film comeback in Goldman's picture.

Rebecca, of course, not only finds but falls for Michel, while Preston hooks up with Yvette, a movie-mad Parisian. But just when Rebecca and Preston have persuaded Michel to go ahead with the picture, the identity of his heretofore "secret" co-star is revealed. And because it's the brash, obnoxious Hermia, with whom Michel had a troubled relationship in Hollywood, he backs out of the picture again — blaming Rebecca for betraying him with the publicity stunt.

It's all much ado, of course, but enough of a frame on which to peg a nicely varied array of George and Ira Gershwin songs, familiar and virtually unknown.

Ludwig's gags are somewhat hit and miss. He's got everyone tossing off malapropisms, some too obvious. Still his script is often funny. The farcical complications, especially in an Act 2 bedroom scene, build to a substantial payoff. His efforts to get some warmth into the central relationship pay off, too.

Yet as Ludwig has conceived them, the straight-laced Rebecca and nonchalant Michel seem a shade too low-key for the show unfolding around them. They don't take to song and dance as naturally as the featured characters, such as Preston and Yvette, who shake and wake the show every time they are on. Ludwig has made the other characters more interesting, or at least more fun, than his two leads.

The title ballet, set to the tone poem An American in Paris (much truncated here), is emblematic. Michel and Rebecca stroll in and out, merely observing, while others dance the action. Shouldn't the romantic pas de deux, at least, belong to them? Here and elsewhere, the leads need to be made central rather than peripheral.

Ludwig is generally successful programming the songs to work in their new contexts. He may use a few too many as throwaways — songs partially heard in a club or soundstage. Those given a strong situational lead-in really land, such as Wake Up Brother and Dance, The Bad, Bad Men and Boy! What Love Has Done to Me — all for featured characters. Again, it's the leads who need attention, one or two more big numbers, certainly a duet in the first act to drive home that their romance has clicked. Michel's Love Walked In and Rebecca's Home Blues should not be allowed to pass so quickly, and the former might be better framed as a number about Rebecca's impact on him, rather than his late wife's.

Harry Groener brings a seasoned charm to Michel, with warmth to his singing and grace to his dancing. Yet if the character is supposed to be a legend of French music hall, the show at some point needs to resoundingly demonstrate why.

Kerry O'Malley is sweet and winning as the scared-of-life Rebecca. She sings beautifully, given the chance — but needs to be given a few more chances to shine, to cut loose and show us her character has become a new person.

Jeffrey Denman is virtually handed the show on a platter as Preston, and he rises to the opportunity. He's a nimble dancer, joyous singer, irrepressible cut-up as the gotta-sing, gotta-dance guy — a bit Donald O'Connor, a bit Danny Kaye, all fun.

Meredith Patterson is another key energizer as saucy soubrette Yvette. She dances sleekly, sings vivaciously, exudes personality. In one of Ludwig's best comic bits, she cites American phrases she's learned from the movies, aptly mimicking everyone from Bette Davis to Shirley Temple to Mae West.

Felicia Finley is often a riot as the brassy "dumb blonde" Hermia — despite the variable material Ludwig has supplied for a role clearly patterned after Singin' in the Rain's Lina Lamont. Ron Orbach brings vitality and drive to the blustering, apoplectic ogre of a studio boss. Alix Korey is droll as his skeptical spouse.

Director Gregory Boyd gives the overall production that technicolor MGM gloss, and affection for that tradition, aided by Douglas W. Schmidt's spiffy settings, Carrie Robbins' glamorous costumes and Paul Gallo's vivid lighting.

Choreographer Randy Skinner, an expert at traditional showbiz razzmatazz, buoys the show at every opportunity, whether in big production numbers such as Wake Up Brother and Dance and Clap Yo' Hands or charming duets such as Preston and Yvette's Delishious. The dancing corps performs superbly throughout.

The show's musical values are impeccable, thanks to conductor Andrew Bryan, orchestrators Doug Besterman and Larry Blank and musical supervisor Rob Berman.

If American in Paris is another example of putting vintage wine in new bottles, the content is fine and the container serviceable. Refining the two leads would be akin to clarifying the label.

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