Few new Broadway musicals these days are strong on dance, perhaps because so many of the great director-choreographers have passed away or retired. That void makes the arrival of An American in Paris — based on the 1951 movie musical — all the more worthy of celebration. It ushers into the director’s chair the Royal Ballet’s Christopher Wheeldon, who demonstrates that he knows how to sweep up an audience emotionally and tell a story through dance.
True, that 65-year-old Oscar-winning movie did not have much story to tell, but Craig Lucas, the show’s adapter, deepens the narrative by emphasizing the aftermath of the recently ended Second World War. Still, everything he has to say on the subject is expressed more vividly — and wordlessly — in Wheeldon’s opening ballet to George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, depicting in movement the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation.
During the number, we are introduced to Jerry Mulligan, an American soldier so scarred by the war that he decides to remain in Paris and try to make a living there with his artwork. Nevertheless, that goal takes a back seat to romance when he discovers and falls for a gamine shopgirl and would-be ballerina named Lise Dassin.
To complicate the plot a bit, Jerry befriends a would-be composer, Adam Hochberg, and an heir to a textile fortune, Henri Baurel, who fancies himself a cabaret performer. Together they declare themselves to be The Three Musketeers, a bond sorely tested by the fact that they each become smitten by Lise. (Yes, Henri’s parents are fairly sure that he is gay, an interesting subplot that unfortunately goes nowhere.)
As with the movie, the show’s storyline is illustrated with existing songs by George and Ira Gershwin — George having died in 1937 — and leads up to a 17-minute ballet set to a symphonic poem from 1928 that shares the title An American in Paris. The songs, of course, are terrific, but as with such other Gershwin jukebox musicals as My One and Only and Crazy for You, plugging in tunes from the composer-lyricist duo’s trunk does not always make for a smooth fit.
For instance, Jerry leads the company in a particularly puzzling choice, “Fidgety Feet,” saved only by Wheeldon’s giddy, frenetic choreography. You will probably soon stop seeking motivation for song selections and just savor such classic standards as “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “’S Wonderful” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
Designer Bob Crowley, a frequent collaborator of Wheeldon’s, takes us throughout Paris stylishly, with an assist from the projections by 59 Productions. The latter’s animation often begin with line drawings that magically become solid and realistic as Crowley’s set pieces float into view. Early on, Jerry woos Lise by the Seine, rendered for maximum romance by Crowley’s whimsical perspective tricks and shimmering lighting on the water by Natasha Katz.
Just as Wheeldon is trying his hand at stage directing for the first time, he has attracted professional dancers to take on the leading roles and add singing and acting to their résumés. For this national tour, he pulls in Garen Scribner (Jerry) from the San Francisco Ballet and Sara Esty (Lise) from the Miami City Ballet. Both have very pleasant singing voices and negotiate their way through Lucas’s often clunky dialogue.
As with the movie, you will likely not be going to An American in Paris for the storyline. But when Scribner and Esty are soaring in a pas de deux, with a lithe, athletic ensemble dancing around them, all is right in the world. The world of musicals, that is.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday. Tickets: $27 and up. 561-832-7469.