Before Thursday, March 12, I had not comprehended the extent to which COVID-19 is an unprecedented event in our lifetimes. The reality, not surprisingly, hit me while I sat in a theater—specifically the Drury Lane Oakbrook. Prior to the show, two Drury Lane executives addressed the audience and tearfully announced that we were witnessing the last production of An American in Paris. This large-scale musical would be closing early in accordance with Governor Prizker’s executive order.
Of course, when considering the hardships still to come as this pandemic progresses, a suburban theater losing 19 performances seems insignificant. Yet, this is a tangible example of a small loss that will be felt by many who were looking forward to seeing An American in Paris, which was an extraordinary effort for Drury Lane—a fitting successor to 2016’s Crazy For You proving that Drury Lane’s quality for dance-heavy shows matches the Broadway traveling companies.
As explained by dramaturg Joseph Pindelski, the concept of bringing the iconic Gene Kelly movie to stage involved significant reinvention and attention to historical context. While the film glorified Paris in its months following German occupation, a modern interpretation needs to explore how the war impacted the principle characters. Thus the opening number “Concerto in F” was almost scary in showing Jerry Mulligan (Josh Drake) as he encounters love at first sight upon a chance meeting with Lise Dassin (Leigh-Annesty) among the chaotic and dangerous streets of Paris.
An American in Paris is a story of three tortured men who love the same woman. For Lise, the men represent obligations to her past and present and also her unacknowledged dream for the future. Lise feels obliged to marry Henri Baurel (Will Skrip), whose family hid her from the Nazis. Henri’s secret is that he worked for the French resistance during the war, but even after the expulsion of the Nazi’s from Paris, his family remains too afraid to reveal their actions and are thus viewed as cowards. Lise is also somewhat indebted to Adam Hochberg (Skyler Adams), a wounded American soldier with a pronounced limp; Adam prefers to remain in Paris as a piano player rather than return home knowing he is too psychologically damaged to resume his life as it was. Adam was playing the piano at a critical ballet audition for Lise, and he helped her gain the confidence needed to jump-start her career as a lead in a new ballot.
I have not seen the 1951 movie, but knowing that Gene Kelly played Jerry Mulligan implies that Jerry was the uncontested hero of the film. In this musical adaptation, Jerry is the least intriguing of the three men. Like Adam, Jerry is a former soldier who chooses to stay in Paris after the war. Unlike Adam and Henri, who both believe they are unworthy of Lise’s love, Jerry is confident in his connection to Lise, which leads to many scenes with highly emotive dialogue that sounds like this: [Jerry:] “Just look me in the eye and tell me that you love Henri, and I will go away, but I will never forget you.” [Lise:] “Paris has ways of making people forget.” What makes the Jerry/Lise relationship work is their dancing—multiple scenes choreographed by Lynne Kurdziel-Formato which communicate that Jerry is the one who reignites Lise’s desire to live, even if he lacks Adam’s and Henri’s personal demons.
Drury Lane’s production of An American in Paris is representative of what we hope will occur as this world-wide tragedy continues. It begins in a dark time, and the characters encounter fear, uncertainty, and emotional detachment; but ultimately it ends with great color representing hope for what lies ahead.