How do people recover from war — especially a conflagration as catastrophic as World War II? In many ways that is the question at the heart of “An American in Paris,” the Broadway musical that (quite literally) danced its way onto the stage of Chicago’s Oriental Theatre on Wednesday night and made a glorious case for the power of art, friendship and romance as catalysts of rebirth.

‘AN AMERICAN IN PARIS’
Highly recommended
When: July 25 – Aug. 13
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
Tickets: $27 – $98
Info: www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

Although based on the 1951 film, this stage version, with a book by Craig Lucas that puts the post-war years in France in far starker relief, is far from a carbon copy. Of course the peerless songs of George and Ira Gershwin (along with the grand sweep of George’s orchestral music), sets the rhythm. But paired with the sinuous direction and brilliantly varied choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, and the fluid sets by Bob Crowley that have a sinuous dance style all their own, this show might well be described as “a danced-through musical,” just as others are dubbed “sung-through” shows. For dance — an exuberant mix of ballet, modern, jazz, tap and classic Broadway styles — is the most essential language of the storytelling here. And that constant flow of movement not only suggests the power of love (troubled as it might be), but captures an entire society’s healing in the wake of death and destruction.

And then there is the cast, whose leads — McGee Maddox (a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada) and Sara Esty (a former soloist with the Miami City Ballet) — are not just classical dancers at the very top of their game, but actor-singers with Broadway level chops. It is difficult to believe this is the first musical venture for both. Talk about “triple threat” performers.

Nick Spangler (center, from left), Etai Benson and McGee Maddox in “An American in Paris.” | Matthew Murphy

The story begins with nothing but a shadowy image of the Arc de Triomphe and a piano. The young composer at work is Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson in a deft, tragicomic turn), a Jewish-American veteran who suffered a leg injury during the war and now has a limp. He reminds us that “some things about the war don’t change overnight,” and indeed, the scene immediately shifts to show Nazi flags being torn down, French flags being raised, Parisians standing in a bread line and a Vichy collaborator attacked.

Out of that darkness comes Jerry Mulligan, a talented young American artist who decides to stay in Paris after serving in the war, and who catches a glimpse of an enchanting little gamin in a mint green coat. Instantly smitten, he only later will learn she is a ballerina named Lise Dassin. Meanwhile, he becomes friends with Adam and is introduced to Henri Baurel (neatly played by Nick Spangler), the son of a wealthy French textile manufacturer who dreams of being a song-and-dance man.

As Jerry will tell us, he has “Beginner’s Luck,” continually running into the enigmatic Lise as if the two were fated for each other, even if she repeatedly resists his entreaties. It is only later that he learns she is to marry Henri, whose proper mother (Gayton Scott) is determined he keep up appearances, even if she senses he is gay. Also in love with Lise is the painfully self-conscious and bumbling Adam, though he knows it is hopeless.

It is the long-thwarted romance between Jerry and Lise that dominates the story, and their connection is indisputable for anyone who watches the two dance together, with the tall, impossibly fleet, naturally graceful Maddox almost too expansive for the stage to contain him, and the petite, wonderfully expressive Lise so beguiling in every move that her dancing sings. Of course there are major complications. One is Lise’s devotion to Henri (the secret behind this should not be divulged here). The other is Milo Davenport (a superb performance by Emily Ferranti), a striking American blonde “cougar” who has moved to Paris and become a patroness of the arts. She is hot for Jerry, and tries to seduce him by supporting his career, but Lise has his heart.

In scene after scene, with such songs as “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “Fidgety Feet, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” — realistic moments subtly shift into fantasy dance sequences. The grand finale, set to “An American in Paris,” is a modernist ballet with a Mondrian-inspired design — a quintessential blend of American energy and French elan fused by Wheeldon’s endless invention.

Crowley’s perspective-shifting sets and ingenious costumes move in perfect tandem with Wheeldon’s choreography. And Rob Fisher’s terrific musical arrangements are exuberantly played by a first-rate orchestra led by David Andrews Rogers. As Ira Gershwin put it: ‘S Wonderful.

Sara Esty plays Lise Dassin and Emily Ferranti plays Milo Davenport in “An American in Paris.” | Matthew Murphy