’Tis the season to hear Gershwin. Between Signature Theatre’s “Crazy for You,” a remake of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy,” and now, the Kennedy Center’s hosting of an exhilaratingly danced national tour of “An American in Paris,” standards such as “I Got Rhythm,” “But Not for Me,” “Shall We Dance?” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” are available to the region’s theatergoers this holiday season in something like stereo.
Fa la la la la, indeed. The “An American in Paris” renditions of these and 13 other creamy Gershwin tunes are contained in a mostly commendable new stage version that embellishes the 1951 movie musical that starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron and won six Academy Awards, including best picture. Director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon shepherded this ballet-centric adaptation in 2015 from a Paris tryout engagement to Broadway, where it ran for more than 600 performances and won four Tony Awards.
The touring version, directed once again by Wheeldon, boasts two strongly athletic dancers, Allison Walsh and McGee Maddox, in the roles charismatically created on Broadway by ballet stars Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild. But if the original of two years ago evoked the drama of postwar France with some romantic power, the actors on tour have drained some of the passion out of the story of a struggling ex-G. I. who wants to paint in the City of Light and sweep the girl of his dreams off her feet there, too.
Diminished as well by a few wacky-sounding accents — which sometimes leave you feeling the show might be called “An American Somewhere in Scandinavia” — the production in the Kennedy Center Opera House tends to broadcast too plainly some of the blander conceits of playwright Craig Lucas’s book. There’s a fine line, it seems, between timelessness and cliche; some of the devices employed here are simply too transparently designed to trigger a song, as in a cabaret scene that becomes a vehicle for Henri Baurel (Ben Michael) to sing “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” as a glittery Gotham fantasy.
Some of the old-school narrative probably is unavoidable, given the musical’s deep roots in the Hollywood musical of yore. Wheeldon’s own extensive knowledge of story ballets — in which plot and character almost always take back seats to exquisite physical technique — also accounts for some of the inattentiveness to expository subtlety. Still, Wheeldon’s choreography is indeed exceptional, especially in the extended “An American in Paris” ballet, accessorized by Bob Crowley’s inventive costumes, that ends the evening and that seems intended as an homage both to the movie and the great New York City Ballet choreographers like Jerome Robbins, who have inspired Wheeldon.
Crowley’s set design is also quite wonderful, though appearing slightly scaled down from Broadway. Cityscapes materialize on backdrops in ways that betoken both the dreamlike landscapes of Monet as well as the Tinseltown innovation of film colorization. The classic midcentury looks Crowley comes up with for the women — especially for the fine Kirsten Scott, as a soigne American benefactress who falls for Maddox’s Jerry Mulligan — add touches of European chic, and the orchestra, conducted by David Andrews Rogers, richly supports a score that’s been augmented since the film with additional Gershwin songs.
Matthew Scott offers an engaging portrayal of Adam Hochberg, the evening’s narrator and a composer who befriends both Jerry and Henri, and like them, is besotted by Walsh’s Lise Dassin. (The character, then called Adam Cook, was played in the film by Oscar Levant, who aficionados will note is affectionately name-checked in the musical).
Though Walsh makes for an endearing Lise, a budding ballet star trying to put her tragic past behind her, Maddox is more commanding as a dancer than as a musical-comedy leading man. Fortunately, when this American in Paris puts his best feet forward, it’s his feet that we are actually talking about — allowing him to help do justice to the lovely duets Wheeldon has worked out for a storybook tale in a city of storybook amour.
An American in Paris , music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, book by Craig Lucas. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. Sets and costumes, Bob Crowley; score adaptation, Rob Fisher; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Jon Weston; projections, 59 Productions; orchestrations, Bill Elliott and Christopher Austin, music supervision, Todd Ellison. With Teri Hansen, Don Noble, Kyle Vaughn. About 2 hours 45 minutes. $59-$149. Through Jan. 7 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.