French connections: Pittsburgh's CLO and Paris theater pair for new show

New musical 'An American in Paris,' a co-production of Pittsburgh CLO, will debut in Paris in November, open in NYC in April

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“An American in Paris,” the new musical jointly produced by Pittsburgh CLO and the City of Light‘‍s Theatre du Chatelet, is fluent in several languages.

There are English and French influences, of course, but also the universal storytelling of dance.

“We wanted the language of dance — ballet, tap — to be the language of the show,” said Stuart Oken, CEO and producer whose Elephant Eye Theatrical bridged the special arrangement of companies. The Pittsburgh CLO and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust are Elephant Eye member theaters.

Rehearsals in New York City begin at the end of the summer in anticipation of a Nov. 22 opening in Paris. After this very, very out-of-town tryout at the Theatre du Chatelet ends Jan. 4, the production returns to New York for Broadway rehearsals.

It begins previews March 13 at the Palace Theatre with an April 12 opening.

“An American in Paris” is based on the 1951 movie starring Pittsburgh son Gene Kelly as Jerry, an expat painter in postwar Paris. His patron is a woman he does not love, and he finds himself instead smitten by Lise (Leslie Caron). The Frenchwoman, of course, is pursued by other men.

The film is buoyed by a lush George and Ira Gershwin score, with songs including “I Got Rhythm,” “ ’‍S Wonderful,” “”They Can’‍t Take That Away From Me“ and ”Love Is Here to Stay.“ Orchestral music sets the stage for a memorable ballet scene that plays out over 15 minutes. 

”If this movie is famous for anything, it‘‍s for this extended ballet at the end of the film. We were completely driven by that,“ Mr. Oken said.

”The question was how to handle [the emphasis on dance]. You could run away from it, or you could run right at it,“ said Pittsburgh CLO executive producer Van Kaplan, ”It could be one of the reasons why the show has never been on stage. It is somewhat daunting: There’‍s only one Gene Kelly, and how do you do that?“

The answer was to wholeheartedly embrace its ballet roots. Former New York City Ballet artist-in-residence Christopher Wheeldon will direct and choreograph, despite initially insisting he felt more comfortable with just the choreography.

”We hounded him to do it,“ Mr. Oken said. ”We kept saying, ‘‍Are you sure? Are you sure?’‍“

Mr. Wheeldon had directed a major ballet piece called ”Alice‘‍s Adventures in Wonderland“ that Mr. Oken described as ”completely transformative.“

Bob Crowley (sets and costumes) and Natasha Katz (lighting) worked on ”Alice“ and have since signed on for ”American in Paris.“ After seeing ”Alice,“ Mr. Oken recalled, he told Mr. Wheeldon, ”I know you say you’‍re not ready, but really, that was a big, honkin‘‍ Broadway musical, without the talking.“

Mr. Wheeldon agreed, and transatlantic negotiations began in earnest.

From the start, the producers knew they needed ballet dancers for the lead roles: ”There was no reason to do this show with someone like Chris if you could not give him the dancers who could do anything he wanted them to,“ Mr. Kaplan said.

New York Ballet principal dancer Robert Fairchild and Royal Ballet first artist Leanne Cope were selected.

”I wouldn’‍t try to pretend they‘‍re singers at the level of the best Broadway singers, but they are triple threats,“ Mr. Oken said.

”An American in Paris“ is not just a story of personal love and reinvention. The producers said Craig Lucas’‍ book aims to capture a city reborn, which the show illuminates through projections and fluid movement of scenery.

Part of the creative team includes Roy Furman, a producer on many Broadway hits including ”The Book of Mormon,“ ”The Addams Family“ (which Pittsburgh CLO helped produce), ”After Midnight“ and the remarkably imagined Broadway version of ”The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.“

Jean-Luc Choplin, Theatre du Chatelet director, has built a reputation for bringing creative musical productions to Paris, performed in their original languages, for about eight years. One of its earlier productions was Stephen Sondheim‘‍s ”A Little Night Music,“ starring Ms. Caron.

She told the journal publication France Today that she considered Mr. Choplin ”a really open-minded man,“ for introducing the American musical to Paris.

Just back from another recent trip to France (”And I don’‍t speak a lick of French,“ he said, laughing), Mr. Kaplan said that the tone and design of this ”American“ is a bit more serious than the film version.

”The movie came out in 1951 for Hollywood, when Hollywood was telling very specific stories for that time. These very uplifting, Technicolor films came out of that era.“

But in that era, on stages across New York City, musicals such as ”West Side Story,“ ”Oklahoma“ and ”Carousel“ mixed whimsy with real drama.  ”If this show had been made for the stage by Jerome Robbins at that very same time... it would have been quite a different story.“

”It‘‍s to be taken seriously,“ Mr. Oken said. ” ’‍An American in Paris‘‍ doesn’‍t quite lend itself to what called ‘‍musical comedy,’‍ per se, although it‘‍s got humor. ’‍Carousel‘‍ has humor, but it’‍s not a comedy.“

At its core, the show is a romance. And if there‘‍s any language that needs no further translation, it’‍s the language of love.

Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.









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