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'An American in Paris' At Bushnell A Fresh, Lively Interpretation

One of my favorite Ira Gershwin lyrics is from the 1922 pop hit "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," when the phrase "I've got the blues" is rhymed with a single short word, "Shoes!" 

The creators of the Broadway stage version of the classic MGM movie musical "An American in Paris" share my passion for "Shoes!" They make that monosyllabic lyric carry even more weight, obliterating the line ("... Come on and carry me there") that follows it in service of character development.

"Shoes," of course, could be the watch-cry of this whole show. "An American in Paris — A New Musical" is a tribute to the Gershwins (wordsmith Ira and composer George) that concentrates on the danceability of their songs.

Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has given the show a very specific style — fluid and fashionable and incurably romantic. If you're accustomed to wacky, charming Gershwin musicals like "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "Crazy for You" or My One and Only," this one is seriously more sultry.

Some classic Gershwin arrangements are messed with. Lyrics are tweaked. A love story forms.

The fresh-stepping, fleet-footed first national tour of "An American in Paris" is at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through Nov. 20. It hardly sets a foot wrong, though sometimes things move a little too fast, and some of the staging choices seem curious. Like, there's no stairway in "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise."

A lot of the set changes are accomplished with grand projections, some of them animated, which resemble charcoal sketches and other artworks. This is in keeping with the show's plot: A young soldier, Jerry Mulligan (Garen Scribner, who nails the straight-legged strut associated with Gene Kelly), decides to stay in France after the end of World War II and become a starving artist. He doesn't starve long. He quickly finds himself a cafe society to hang with — namely sourpuss composer Adam Hocherg (Etai Benson, in the film role created for noted curmudgeon and Gershwin confidante Oscar Levant) and Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler), a wealthy socialite slumming as a song-and-dance man. Jerry also acquires a patron, Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti), who tests him out as a boy toy before developing deeper affections for him. Mostly, Jerry chases after Lise (the petite, impish Sara Esty), a ballet dancer with a secret past.

"An American in Paris — A New Musical" takes pride in how it diverges from the film that inspired it. Several of the songs from the film are not in the show, and those that are have been completely rethought. There are no annoying French schoolchildren bleating "I Got Rhythm" in this version; instead, the song hilariously begins as a slowed-down dirge. Some of the characters' surnames have been changed by the playwright Craig Lucas to give them ethnic heritage and intriguing back stories. Modernist art of the early 20th century is acknowledged. The trauma of war is openly discussed. The show has a lot of dialogue, yet seeks to tell much of its story entirely through dance, and through the glorious melodies of George Gershwin.

The cast, invigorated by Jerry's lovestruck pursuit of Lise, is in constant motion. There are many arresting moments: a department store dance with mannequins, an affliction of "Fidgety Feet" during a fancy party scene, a three-man ballad-style harmony vocal arrangement for "S'Wonderful." It all culminates in a full-blown, full-cast, 15-minute modern ballet extravaganza, scored with George Gershwin's 1928 "symphonic poem" that gives the show its title.

The national tour began just last month, and carries the thrill of newness. It is fresh and lively and colorful. Plus, it's got rhythm. Shoes!

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS — A NEW MUSICAL is at the The Bushnell in Hartford through Nov. 20. Tickets are $36.50 to $119.50. 860-987-5900, bushnell.org.

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