Keeper of the Plans

Review: ‘An American in Paris’ is a radically different show for MTW. It’s fascinating.

Sneak preview of MTW’s ‘An American in Paris’

See footage from dress rehearsal of Music Theatre Wichita's "An American in Paris," which plays at Century II through Sunday, June 30.
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See footage from dress rehearsal of Music Theatre Wichita's "An American in Paris," which plays at Century II through Sunday, June 30.

I’ll be honest: Going into Music Theatre Wichita’s opening night of “An American in Paris,” I really had no idea what to expect.

Sure, I knew it had a rotating stage and a cast of all-stars, but as to the show itself? Not much of a clue.

It’s the most foreign (literally) of MTW’s 2019 lineup, probably because the show had never been done in the Midwest at all until now.

MTW gets the honor of being the show’s regional premiere.

And what a showcase it was.

“An American in Paris” is simply fascinating to watch.

It was apparent from the onset, when not a single word was sung until about 15 minutes into the musical. The show communicates a significant amount of its plot through dance — much like a ballet production — which is a real test for the actors and the staging.

Watching an unorthodox musical like this one is a refreshing break from many musicals, which all too often beat you over the head with their themes in song form. This show demands the audience’s attention at all times, as the viewer has a little bit of interpretation to do to grasp its complexities.

That’s not to say there’s not a fair amount of song-and-dance.

It’s a show that must be evaluated holistically, because it’s well-rounded in a way that most shows aren’t.

Most shows can be defined by and classified into certain genres: “Billy Elliott” is a dancing show, “Les Miserables” is a singing show, et cetera.

“An American in Paris” lives entirely in the land in-between, impossible to characterize in any broad brushstroke.

The show takes the plot of the 68-year-old film and gives it all the flair and moxy of a modern-day Broadway production (the musical premiered in New York in 2015 and promptly won several Tony Awards).

Here, director Jeffry Denman has done a remarkable job of taming this gargantuan show and helping his cast make it all look easy.

Of course, he’s helped by the fact that his two main leads, Clyde Alves (as American artist Jerry Mulligan) and Julie Eicher (as French ballerina Lise Dassin), have previous experience with this show at Maine’s Ogunquit Playhouse.

Wichita audiences are better-off for it.

Alves is particularly nimble on his feet, showing off an impressive array of dance styles throughout the show — though his main “dance language,” so to speak is squarely tap and jazz.

Eicher, on the other hand, lives in ballet world, but learns to let loose thanks to Alves.

I’d hazard a guess that this is perhaps the most ballet MTW has ever put on stage in one production.

Particularly impressive in this cast is Ben Fankhauser, who plays the American pianist Adam Hochberg. He’s one of the few characters in this show who makes his mark by singing and not dancing (as does Rachel Rhodes-Devey, who plays arts benefactor Milo Davenport). Fankhauser’s character, who frames the story as a sort of quasi-narrator, drew the majority of the audience’s laughter throughout the night. His singing voice is a joy to listen to, punctuated by just the right amount of vibrato.

The show, perhaps more than anything else, is a technical marvel — at a level of excellence unmatched by any production I’ve yet seen from the company.

The constantly moving set pieces, the rotating turntable (so creatively used throughout the show), the beautifully colored lighting by Aaron Mooney and the masterfully created projections and animations by Michael Commendatore — all made for highly entertaining theater.

Not to mention the 300-plus costumes George T. Mitchell has built specifically for this one show.

I mean, the show is bigger than Broadway. There are literally more players in MTW’s orchestra (22) than there were in the original New York production (19 — still an impressive number for modern-day Broadway).

I usually try to guard against gushing in any theater review, but this show really is something special.

It merits the praise.

I couldn’t find any major qualms about it — other than slight timing miscues in the larger dance numbers and a costume malfunction here and there. All pretty minor things in the grand scheme of it all.

Give this show a chance. You won’t be sorry.

‘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. Thursday, June 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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