Subtlety in these days is difficult. Subtle doesn’t shove plot points down your throat or play the hits. It doesn’t make lewd jokes. Subtle does not rock, neither does it roll. There are no puppets in starring roles and no one flies on wires or enters from down the aisle. Subtle unfolds itself quietly and honestly—its most important crescendos are muted while its diminuendos are almost silent.
Subtle is old fashioned and An American in Paris is an old fashioned play, beautifully so. I found myself wondering during it’s 2.5 hour premiere on Tuesday night at the Eccles theater if its audience, as old as it was, was old fashioned enough.
For theater audiences weaned on Wicked and nostalgic romps like Jersey Boys it must have been difficult. From where I was sitting on Row L, it sure seemed so.
This was high church after all. With all the liturgy and robes, icons, stations of the cross and the pantheon of Saints, this audience was uncomfortable as a Mormon at Mass. Polite? Oh yes. But so unsure of themselves, shifting in their seats and rustling and coughing through some of the play’s most complicated and delicate moments. They were practically terrified of the next modern dance pantomime.
“Can we just say ‘and peace be unto you’ and get out of this weird church so I can walk around in my garments and dress socks for the rest of the day?”
It’s understandable. This was, after all, an adult plot. There were no wicked witches or fairy godmothers, no brooding phantoms and innocent ingenues. An American in Paris draws out a complicated ménage à trois among its principles who are all sleeping with the person to their right even as they are in love with the person to their left. There is smoking, cursing and musings on the nature of the art, war and peace and it’s all so damned subtle it’s easy to lose the threads. Much of the tale of post-war Paris’s existential convulsions is told literally through dance, elaborate intricate dance, carefully choreographed and meticulously executed.
To be fair, the cast was complicit. Like any Mass, there were many rote rosaries and a limp lord’s prayer or two. Alas, perfection is strangely hard to get excited about.
Stepping into Gene Kelly’s sizable shoes in the role of Jerry Mulligan we had McGee Maddock (thar’s a name for ye) who nailed the marks but maybe left out some emotion. Wearing Lessie Carron’s point shoes as Lise Dassin we had Sara Esty, who was sincere and lovely. In the larger than life role of Henrie Baurel we had Nick Spangler who offered some of the production’s few hiccups. I was never quite sure if he was meant to be a bad singer truly or if he actually was a bad singer or if he was meant to … it all got muddled up. Still, his mincing from-the-closet proposal to Lise was just perfect. And the star of show turned out to be its titular character, the truly true American in Paris, Adam Hochberg (Stephen Brower), the chain smoking sardonic pianist and composer who sets the scenes and plays punching bag in this love pyramid. Brower is hilarious and plays the part with an intensity and imperfection that was able to get guffaws out of even this audience.
Also they could all dance and sing like, well, every one from olden days could. And oh my god the Gershwin. I may have even felt a pulse in the audience as the strains of Rhapsody in Blue reverberated around the hall.
The scenery and stage craft was magnificent, the sets fly in and out magically and simply. That’s what all the people were saying as we shuffled out, “wasn’t the scenery beautiful?” like admiring the stained glass windows at the Vatican.
In the end, I suppose it was all the perfection. I’ve often thought that the problem of formal ballet is that the dancers are working so hard to not show how hard they are working and to a modern eye their efforts seem seems too easy. These days you must, it seems, show your work. This touring production of An American in Paris is formal musical theater. Full of flawless moments and, at times, somewhat bloodless. I’m not sure if was the audience or the actors but it left me cold, like a museum that is very big, very beautiful and you’re not allowed to touch anything.
Still, if you are old fashioned, do go see it. I suspect you will find the act of regarding such perfection is a worthy application of your time. An American in Paris’ very short run continues through Oct 15, 2017 at the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater on our very own Main Street right here in Salt Lake City.
For more info and tickets, go to here.