There’s something new in ‘American in Paris’ the musical

Christopher Wheeldon and Nick Spangler clearly have met the challenges of taking on a classic, with “An American in Paris: A New Musical” a case in point.

Wheeldon, the show’s English choreographer-director, and Spengler, a Broadway performer who grew up in Los Altos and Mountain View, recently were in The City to promote the national tour of the Tony-winning 2015 show opening next week at the Orpheum.

While the project admittedly was a “little intimidating” at first because Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron with George and Ira Gershwin’s famous music is such an “iconic property,” Wheeldon says this first stage version is different.

Unlike the movie, which Wheeldon calls a tour of Paris with a big ballet, the musical (which is set immediately after World War II, not in the 1950s) represents the “culmination of the crashing together of all the art forms” of the principal characters: painter Jerry (played by McGee Maddox), composer Adam (Etai Benson), aristocratic wannabe song-and-dance man Henri (Spangler) and ballerina Lise (Sara Esty).

“It’s all about doing something new and creative and moving forward,” says Wheeldon, pleased the Gershwin estate gave him “carte blanche freedom” to stretch the composers’ canon.

Winning a Tony for his effort, the veteran choreographer — who’s worked with the world’s top dance companies, including San Francisco Ballet (he’s making a piece that will premiere here in April) — clearly succeeded at his first Broadway directing gig.

Meanwhile, playing the part of Henri marks the first time that Spangler, who originated roles on Broadway in “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” and “The Book of Mormon,” has been in the second version of a show.

While it was daunting to fill the shoes of a Tony winner (Max von Essen), Spengler was ultimately satisfied with his experience in the touring cast: “It was so much more fulfilling, once we felt like it was ours, and we had our version, our check of approval,” says the actor, looking forward to being back in California for the first extended period since he went to off to study theater at New York University some 15 years ago.

Spangler says his dream role is one that doesn’t yet exist: “I want to sing songs nobody’s ever sung before, be a voice on an album that a 10-year-old kid who’s interested in theater gets to hear and sing along with in their bedroom. … And 10 or 20 years later, as a college student auditioning for a revival of a show, they go back [and say], ‘Who did that on Broadway originally? Oh, Nick Spangler, maybe I could be a young Nick Spangler.’”

IF YOU GO

An American in Paris: A New Musical
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., S.F
When: Opens Sept. 12, runs 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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