Keeper of the Plans

Music Theatre’s latest show will give audiences a revolutionary viewing experience

Music Theatre Wichita’s latest offering will be revolutionary.

That’s not predicting the future; it’s just a statement of fact.

The theater company’s production of “An American in Paris” opening next Wednesday is set atop a custom-built rotating stage.

It’s the first time MTW has used this sort of technology for a show. The company added a 4-inch-higher floor across the entire stage to accommodate the motorized turntable, according to Wayne Bryan, MTW’s producing artistic director.

The production also will be the regional premiere of “An American in Paris.”

The show is based on the classic film of the same name, though it was not turned into a stage musical until 2014 — thus you have “a new musical” based on a 1951 movie.

It’s set to the music of George Gershwin and, as such, has a heavy focus on dancing.

The show, set in post-World War II Paris, follows the story of three different men who fall in love with the same French woman but don’t realize it.

Music Theatre Wichita’s production has essentially been transplanted from Ogunquit, Maine, which, last summer, was the first regional theater in the country to be granted access to the musical.

The show’s director and choreographer, Jeffry Denman, associate choreographer Ashley Marinelli, and some of the leading talent — Clyde Alves and Julie Eicher — staged it in Maine last summer. The rotating stage, as well as the majority of the set, was built in Ogunquit — and MTW has since purchased them.

Denman said the MTW production is an expansion of the Maine show, featuring new choreography and new staging.

“We are definitely trying to make it the Music Theatre Wichita production, so it doesn’t feel like we’re just putting it up,” he said.

Denman was given license to take the Broadway show and change its direction, staging and choreography — so this version is significantly different than any Broadway or touring production of the show.

“It was all about trying to bring the movie back into the production,” he said, adding that the Broadway show had significant European sensibilities. “It meant, for me, having Jerry’s dance vocabulary not be ballet-centric but be based in American tap and jazz.”

Bryan said Denham’s interpretation of the musical — which was critically acclaimed in Maine — “puts the American back in it.”

“America always has this struggle between wanting to emulate our European forebears artistically and yet have this brash American spirit that is uniquely our own, from the amalgam of influences we have,” Bryan said. “Gershwin, as a composer in the ‘20 and ‘30s, is the perfect embodiment of that.”

MTW’s summer ensemble had extra time to prepare for this “mammoth show,” because season opener “The Sound of Music” required so little of its orchestra.

The show will benefit from featuring leading actors who previously did it at the Ogunquit Playhouse last summer.

Alves, who plays the lead role of Jerry Mulligan in this production, played the same part last summer in Maine. He’s also a Music Theatre Wichita alum (“Nice Work If You Can Get It”).

“For me this is like a tour de force,” he said. “Through all the different shows I’ve done, I’ve never quite done something that showcases (acting, singing and dancing) so prominently almost every number.

“It’s like a full-body workout.”

Eicher, who plays the leading lady Lise in this production (and also did so in Maine), is taking a two-week break from the touring production of “Miss Saigon” to perform in Wichita.

In some sections of the show, she will be performing — yes, singing — while dancing ballet en pointe.

“I come from the ballet world — I’ve danced in the Nashville Ballet, Dayton Ballet, but didn’t really find that I fit exactly, because singing and acting was something I always loved,” she said. “This show is what I love to do. I love to do ballet but not quite so classically. ... I also get to sing and really tell a story.”

The leading roles are rounded out by Ben Fankhauser, Rachel Rhodes-Devey and Johnny Stellard - all of whom have Broadway and/or film experience.

Fankhauser recently found broad exposure originating the role of Davey in the Broadway musical “Newsies,” which was then released as a film. It played in Wichita theaters and until recently was available for streaming on Netflix.

“A lot of our teens, they follow Ben Fankhauser on social media,” Bryan said. “Ben has a lot of fans that just loved his character.”

For his part, Fankhauser said “Music Theatre Wichita has been on my radar for years.”

“It’s got a great reputation, and I’m from the Midwest — I’m passionate about bringing Broadway to America in any way I can, so I sort of jumped at the opportunity” to play the role of Adam in “An American In Paris,” he said.

“Likewise, this role has also been on my radar since I saw it on Broadway. I’ve been looking to play it, so I’m really happy that everything lined up here.”

While MTW’s season opener, “The Sound of Music,” was its biggest set build of the summer, “An American in Paris” will easily be the company’s biggest costume build.

It will be “a race to the finish” for costume designer George Mitchell, who is creating “somewhere between 300-400 costumes” for this show, Bryan said.

“Each ensemble member changes six or nine times,” he said.

“An American in Paris” was the final addition to MTW’s 2019 season — a late-in-the-game replacement for an unnamed musical Bryan said he “was reluctantly putting in the mix.”

“(MTW box office manager) Josh Larson noticed a press release from Ogunquit, that they were doing ‘An American in Paris,’” Bryan said. “I had loved it when I’d seen it in New York. ... I just thought it was going to be a longer stretch of time before it was available on the regional theater market.”

Parking will be at a premium during the show, as the Century II parking lot will be filled with vintage Oldsmobiles for a national car show.

Two downtown Wichita parking garages will be free for Music Theatre Wichita patrons to use — and shuttle buses will operate continuously starting 45 minutes before the show and again afterward.

Those two garages are at 215 S. Market and at 121 S. Emporia. Surface parking lots owned by Intrust Bank, near Douglas and Main, will also be available for MTW ticketholders to use.

Cast list

‘An American in Paris’

What: Regional premiere of musical based on 1951 Academy Award-winning film of the same name.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, June 26-27; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, June 28-29; 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, June 29-30; and 7 p.m. Sunday, June 30

Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas

Tickets: $25-$70, from the Century II box office, by phone at 316-265-3107, or online at www.mtwichita.org.

More information: Show is rated PG. Running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes. Children must be at least 5 years old to attend.

Matt Riedl covers arts and entertainment news for the Wichita Eagle and has done so since 2015. He maintains the Keeper of the Plans blog on Facebook, dedicated to keeping Wichitans abreast of all things fun.
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