I try to get to Beef & Boards’ Dinner Theatre whenever it’s presenting a musical for the first time. This season, it’s offering more than usual, with “Grumpy Old Men’ in Aug/Sept, and, through May 14, “An American in Paris.”
I caught that last one early in its run. Some thoughts:
— I’ll be upfront with the fact that I’ve never strongly reacted to the “An American in Paris.” The Oscar-winning movie version — even seen in a near ideal presentation with live music by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra a few years back — proved less than thrilling. I love Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Brigadoon” but, as the title American, Jerry Mulligan, he just seemed indulgent and selfish. The Broadway production in 2015 offered some strong visuals and top-notch dancing (all echoed in the live capture that has been streamed on PBS and is available on #BroadwayHD) but there, too, even with extensive rewrites, New York City Ballet’s Robert Fairchild in the lead didn’t leave a mark on my heart.
— While few can or should be expected to dance like Fairchild, I cared a bit more about the plight of Jerry, as played by Jon Rose, in Beef & Boards’ production than I did on Broadway or streaming. Let’s emphasis “a bit,” since the character is still, pardon, a dick. But Rose’s work certainly added to the pleasures of the evening.
— Of course, the music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin certainly go a long way as well. Some of the songs heard on stage, including “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and “I Got Rhythm” were included in the film musical. (Side note: If you feel like you heard those Gershwin songs before on this stage, that could be because both are also featured in “Crazy for You,” another — and more fun — pick-and-choose-from-the-brother’s-output shows. Yes, jukebox musicals go way back.) Others songs included in the film have been ditched with others from the Gershwin’s catalogue added. Some serve the play, some don’t.
— As to one that doesn’t, let’s just say that it’s baffling why the revision team, including book writer Craig Lucas, would throw in “Fidgety Feet.” I realize that Act II opening songs tend to be throwaways as audiences settle in — and why not a comic number? — but as used in the stage version of “An American in Paris,” it violates the reality that the rest of the show is trying hard to create.
— That stage reality includes a more seriously– okay, slightly more serious — view of Paris and its inhabitants just after WWII, including the backstory for the object of Jerry’s desire, Lise (Sophie Aknin).
— It surely wasn’t the intent of the original creative team or the adaptors but even with much of the plot dealing with Lise’s mysterious past and the struggles of Jerry’s pals, a composer with a disability and a closeted guy held back from the career, none prove to be the most sympathetic character in the show. At Beef & Boards, that turns out to be wealthy dilettante Milo Davenport (Sarah Hund). Akin to Vera from “Pal Joey” she’s believably and movingly bewitched, bothered and bewildered by her affair with Jerry. As played here, she adds a much-needed anchor to the production.
–It should surprise no one that the film’s extended ballet number is severely truncated at the Beef. But otherwise the dancing is solidly within the limits of the talented cast and limited stage space.
— And while some of the scenic design borders on make-do (particularly the rolling backdrops that sometimes seem like cafeteria tables being cleared for a student dance), there’s some very strong projection work on hand, helping to add an element of Parisian magic.
— Musical highlight: Jerry and buddies Adam (Austin Glen Jacobs) and Henri (Ian Black) turning “S’Wonderful” into a trio that’s, well, quite wonderful.
(Photo, above: Jerry (Jon Rose) leaps while he sings “Liza” to Lise (Sophie Aknin) in Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre’s production of An American in Paris, now on stage through May 14.)