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Dance, romance and history propel ‘An American in Paris’ on stage

Sara Esty and McGee Maddox star in the national touring company of "An American in Paris," the musical with songs by George and Ira Gershwin and direction and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Compile a list of some of the most famous directors of Broadway musicals — Jerome Robbins, Gower Champion, Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, Susan Stroman, Tommy Tune, Graciela Daniele, Kathleen Marshall, Rob Marshall, Casey Nicholaw — and you realize how many of them began as choreographers. It makes perfect sense. After all, bringing a musical to life is a complex dance — one that demands the seamless interplay of story, score, scenery, actors and orchestra.

‘AN AMERICAN IN PARIS’

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

A scene from the national touring company production of “An American Paris,” running July 25 – Aug. 3 at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. | Matthew Murphy)
A scene from the national touring company production of “An American Paris,” running July 25 – Aug. 3 at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. | Matthew Murphy)

The latest addition to this list is Christopher Wheeldon, the director and choreographer of “An American in Paris,” a lavish, re-envisioned take on the 1951 movie musical that starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, and that comes with a score drawn from the glorious songbook of George and Ira Gershwin, a book by Craig Lucas (“The Light in the Piazza”), sets and costumes by the British master Bob Crowley (“Aladdin”), and, not surprisingly, dance (from ballet to jazz and tap) that infuses every scene. The show, which won raves for its 2015 debut at Paris’ Chatelet Theatre, moved on to Broadway (where it earned Wheeldon a Tony nomination as director and a Tony Award for choreography), began a national tour last fall. It arrives July 25 for a three-week run at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. A Japanese production is slated for next year.

Wheeldon’s only previous Broadway job was as choreographer for the 2002 musical, “Sweet Smell of Success.” But the British-bred dancer comes with a formidable resume. He began his career with the Royal Ballet, moved on to become a soloist and resident choreographer for the New York City Ballet, founded his own company, Morphoses, and has choreographed dozens of contemporary works for major companies around the globe, as well as several full-length story ballets, including the Joffrey Ballet’s new version of “The Nutcracker.”

The idea to bring “An American in Paris” to the stage began when Chicago-based producer Stuart Oken and his partners sat down with members of the Gershwin family to discuss its viability. And Oken confesses that when he watched the film for the first time in many years he was not entirely convinced it could work.

“It felt old, and not entirely real, and my fear was that we would capitalize on a widely known title but have no real substance driving the story,” he said. A second viewing changed his mind.

“The movie was set in 1950, but it had no sense that its characters [Jerry Mulligan, an aspiring artist, and composer Adam Hochberg, two soldiers who decided to stay in Paris after World War II] were living in the aftermath of all that had just happened in Europe. And why was Lise Dassin, the young ballerina who captured Jerry’s eye, so devoted to Henri Baurel, the wealthy French nightclub performer?”

“The only clue to that question was in a single line,” said Oken. “It’s when she says, ‘My parents were in the Resistance, and Henri took care of me.’ So, being a fervent student of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, I saw the possibilities of having the show suggest a cataclysmic event without being about it — of suggesting life in the wake of the Nazi occupation, with the Parisians standing on bread lines and jeering at a known collaborator, yet with everyone also hoping for rebirth, and with artists feeding on the post-war energy. In addition, as a dance lover, I knew we could not run away from ballet, and had to make the ballet sequences real while keeping the spirit of a true Broadway musical. So we very soon understood we needed the director and choreographer to be one person.”

British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon who directed ”An American in Paris” poses at the “Theatre du Chatelet” in Paris, on November 12, 2014. | THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images
British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon who directed ”An American in Paris” poses at the “Theatre du Chatelet” in Paris, on November 12, 2014. | THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images

Wheeldon was thrilled when asked to choreograph the show but was initially hesitant about assuming the role of director. But as discussions went on, he too sensed the need for a unity of vision. And with subsequent readings and workshops he also learned that “You don’t always have to have an answer for an actor; it’s a lot about letting them figure things out for themselves, and just knowing when it feels honest and true. And I remembered how even with abstract ballets Jerry Robbins would tell us to think about where we were, and who we were as people. ”

As for the score, it would include all the important songs in the movie, and others needed to enhance the storytelling (from “I Got Rhythm,” “‘S Wonderful,” “But Not For Me,” “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” to the zany “Fidgety Feet” and more), plus some of George Gershwin’s orchestral music (“Concerto in F,” “Second Prelude,” “Second Rhapsody/Cuban Overture” and the title work).

Then there was the matter of casting. How many world-class ballet dancers can also sing and act? Finding adults who could play the essential romantic couple of Jerry and Lise was certainly doable, even if extensive acting and vocal coaching was required. In the current national touring company, Jerry is being played by McGee Maddox (a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada), with Sara Esty (a soloist with the Miami City Ballet) as Lise.

It was a sense of rebuilding that was of the essence in Wheeldon’s collaboration with designer Bob Crowley.

Crowley noted “The character of Jerry really discovers himself as an artist in Paris, the most beautiful, widely photographed city in the world, so we used projections to suggest the sketches he makes. And I found inspiration in reportage of the post-war period, as well as in a strange book of Nazi photos taken in Paris that were printed on color stock that made everything look gray-green, while the reds and oranges popped. I looked at the work of all the famous artists — Picasso, Matisse, Braque and especially Caillebotte, who captured the streets of Paris with a strange perspective, and Mondrian. … There was such a wonderful cornucopia of ideas in the art world of the time.”

McGee Maddox and Sara Esty in the national touring company of “An American in Paris.” | Matthew Murphy