Eye-catching ‘American in Paris’ at Orpheum

If ever a show should have come to town projecting exuberance, “An American in Paris” was it. Yet the hotly anticipated Broadway touring production that opened Wednesday at the Orpheum Theatre made a surprisingly tepid first impression.

Don’t blame George and Ira Gershwin, whose score for the iconic 1951 film infuses this acclaimed musical theater adaptation. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, with book by playwright Craig Lucas and musical score adapted and arranged by Rob Fisher, Gershwin’s music — with numbers such as “I Got Rhythm,” “S’Wonderful,” “The Man I Love,” and “Shall We Dance?” — are as fresh as ever. And Wheeldon’s dance sequences, when they finally catch fire, are captivating.

But an air of restraint prevailed on opening night. Unevenly cast and dutifully paced, the nearly three-hour performance went through the motions but never quite acquired a sense of emotional depth. Theatergoers are likely to cheer for the show’s visual razzle-dazzle but arrive at the final curtain dry-eyed.

The story begins at the end of World War II; the Allies have prevailed, although GIs Jerry Mulligan (an ebullient McGee Maddox) and his friend Adam Hochberg (a wryly appealing Stephen Brower) still seem shell-shocked from their time as soldiers.

Adam, a composer, introduces Jerry, a visual artist, to Lise (a demure Sara Esty), a French ballerina with ties to Henri Baurel (a charismatic Nick Spangler.) There are secrets all around: Henry professes to love Lise, but he may be gay (his mother thinks so, anyway), and Lise, who is Jewish, loves Jerry, but feels beholden to Henri and his family, who sheltered her during the war.

Wheeldon clearly selected his cast for their dancing abilities; Maddox and Esty partner beautifully in their final pas de deux. The singing was more variable, even lackluster, throughout the ensemble, although the meltingly beautiful Act 2 performance of the quartet “For You, For Me, For Evermore” was one of the evening’s highlights.

For the most part, though, the show looks better than it sounds.

The sets, designed by Bob Crowley and lit by Natasha Katz, evoke the City of Light in one entrancing backdrop after another — starry nights, boulevard scenes, boats on the Seine — and Wheeldon’s dance sequences, underpowered in Act 1, become vibrant after intermission, particularly in a show-stopping tap number for “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.” When the cast comes together in movement in front of those postcard views, “An American in Paris” is worth the trip.

An American in Paris: A New Musical
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., S.F
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 8
Tickets: $45 to $214
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

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