On Stage: Bringing “Paris” Home

June 5, 2017

Paris is (or should be) on everyone’s bucket list, whether it is the City of Light itself or the original movie starring Gene Kelly. Now An American in Paris can come calling to a city nearby. That is, in this case, Pittsburgh, where the Civic Light Opera was instrumental in bringing the Tony Award-winning production to life and is presenting it on its first national tour.

Original Cast members Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild. Photo: Angela Sterling

So Paris recently made its way to the Benedum Center where it became one of the few productions to truly fill this 2,800-seat house, maybe even better than on Broadway. The star, of course, is the sweeping score, with so many George Gershwin favorites setting a blend of engagement and sophistication that inspires the rest of the production.

If you are looking for a remake of the Kelly movie, don’t bother. For director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon et. al. have used the story of an American soldier with a talent for art and filled it with so much more.

Instead of Kelly’s Jerry waking up to the sounds of Paris, the audience finds a piano center stage, signaling the importance of the music. The musical Paris virtually billows from there, beginning with the Arc de Triomphe hovering in the background and a huge French flag that covers the stage.

The spectacle continues with the art, so Parisian. It virtually draws the various buildings with charcoal lines as Jerry might have, along with such references as Monet’s light on the Seine and abstract modern art on display. There is a huge production number, ala the Art Deco design of Radio City Music Hall, and the climactic ballet sequence has a touch of Mondrian, with primary colors in geometric shapes.

There is much to bedazzle the viewer. Wheeldon’s vision is epic, where everything seems to be choreographed, even Bob Crowley’s Tony Award-winning set pieces that create a gliding jigsaw puzzle across the stage and drift down and up like clouds. When it’s all over, the audience has been on its own effortless Parisian tour.

And if the set dances on its own, the talented performers, culled from major companies in New York, Chicago, Miami and such, take the ballet style and give it an elegance and purity of line that has never been seen in a Broadway musical up until now, an achievement in itself. (And, by the way, they can sing and act up a storm as well.)

If there is a glitch, it’s that Craig Lucas’ book, taut as it is, builds up the secondary characters. It’s  a great idea on paper, but something that diminishes the relationship between Lise (the vocally superb Sara Esty) and Jerry (National Ballet of Canada principal McGee Maddox). Composer Adam, Etai Benson with a superb dry wit, gets the theatrical emphasis at the start. And Henri, a booming Nick Spangler, gets the benefit of the Radio City Music Hall mega-production.

A word to the wise: with so much to absorb and the huge vision of it all, this delicious Parisian truffle probably would be best to see seated at a distance, the better to savor it. And just like you need time to appreciate Paris itself, maybe it would be good to return for an encore, because this production builds its own stairway to paradise.

Original cast. Photo: Matthew Murphy

 


Dance Beat: PBT, CLO Dance Seasons Plus, Jacob’s Pillow

March 30, 2015

PBT WESTERN SYMPHONY

PBT. As it nears the finish of its 45th season, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre seems to be casting its sights on the 50th. For the first time in recent memory it is presenting two mixed repertory nights. The first, with George Balanchine’s Western Symphony, William Forsythe’s in the middle somewhat elevated and Jiri Kylian’s Sinfonietta, opens the season (Benedum Center, Oct. 23-25) and has the potential to be the company’s best program…ever. There is no doubt that this is a great line-up. But more importantly, it has balance, perhaps beginning with the sweeping Sinfonietta, then with the meaty contemporary angles of the Forsythe and finishing with Balanchine’s version of the wild, wild West. The other (Byham Theater, Mar. 10-13) features what appears to be a popular and fairly recent (BalletMet premiere 2010) ballet, noted Canadian choreographer James Kudelka’s Man in Black, inspired by country legend Johnny Cash. It will be accompanied by another local premiere, Michael Smuin’s 1969 pas de deux, The Eternal Idol, and a return of the iconic Jardin aux Lilas (Lilac Garden) by Antony Tudor. The company will bring back Jorden Morris’ version of Peter Pan (Benedum, Feb. 12-14) and, of course, the annual Nutcracker (Benedum, Dec. 4-27). The season will then conclude with the company premiere of Le Corsaire (Benedum, Apr. 15-17), one of those epic ballet warhorses about a pirate who seeks to liberate the woman he loves from kidnappers. The orchestra will accompany the opening program and Le Corsaire. For more information, click on PBT.

CLO. Not falling into the season category (but it will in the future) is the exciting news about the new production of An American in Paris, choreographed by balletic superstar choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who is also making his directorial debut. It got rave reviews in Paris for this reimagining of the classic Gene Kelly film and set to open on Broadway . The cast is to-die-for, led by New York City Ballet principal dancer Robert Fairchilds  and The Royal Ballet’s Leanne Cope, certain to be a dead ringer for Leslie Caron onstage. Check it out at American.

PITTSBURGH ON BROADWAY. Dance aficionados will want to catch Mathilda the Musical, with choreography and movement by Peter Darling, whose other credits include Billie Elliot: The Musical. The Sam Mende/Rob Marshall version of Cabaret returns to Pittsburgh via the 2015-16 Broadway across America season direct from Broadway and The Wizard of Oz gets a bit of a facelift from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber with some new songs (choreographer is Brit Arlene Phillips). For those who are musical-ly driven, Beautiful — The Carole King Musical will be of interest plus some familiar favorites like Jersey Boys, The Sound of Music and Blue Man Group. For more information, click on Broadway.

JACOB’S PILLOW. Well, well, well. Pittsburgh beat the Pillow to the punch on a couple of appearances taking place on its 2015 season, including Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host  (the Ira Glass/Monica Bill Barnes collaboration presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council in February), Daniel Ulbricht & Stars of American Ballet (independently presented at the Byham Theater and Cuba’s Malpaso (presented by Kelly Strayhorn Theater with two North American premieres). Of course, Alonzo King LINES Company and Martha Graham Dance Company have touched base here along the way as well. (In a real departure, there will be only one Graham work on the program and a premiere by Mats Ek to celebrate the group’s 90th anniversary.) Keigwin + Company open the season and will include tap sensation Michelle Dorrance and L.A. Project, founded by Benjamin Millepied. Click on Pillow.

 

 


On Stage: Gene Kelly — The Legacy

May 20, 2014

Movie icon Gene Kelly has always been larger than life here, being that he was a Pittsburgh native. This week viewers will have a rare opportunity to see him when Kelly returns to the big screen at the Byham Theater Wednesday night.

Wife Patricia Ward Kelly will bring a separate set of clips in this complimentary piece to her talk at the University of Pittsburgh in 2012, which focused on his use of the camera. The Byham evening will be more personal, an in-depth look at the varying dimensions of Kelly. “There are a couple of similarities,” says his wife. “But much of it will be very, very different.”

So it will again prove something: “Gene — we hardly knew ye.” “People come away with an altered sense of who Gene was,” she notes. “They love him up on the screen, but they kind of think that’s who he really was. They kind of forget that he’s acting up there. I think they think that he danced around the house and was this happy-go-lucky guy. I don’t think they think of him as this guy who was mostly cerebral — sitting down in a chair reading a book, writing poetry and things like that.”

Actually most people don’t know that he directed what we see in movies like On the Town and An American in Paris, choreographed what we see in Singin’ in the Rain. They don’t understand how revolutionary so much of the work was.

“That’s what is really fun about it,” she continues. “People don’t realize that he spoke so many languages [Yiddish, French, Latin and Italian], that he was a cultural ambassador to Africa. They don’t realize that he had these personal friendships with great writers like Carl Sandburg and Samuel Becket and Thornton Wilder.”

So they just come out with a greater appreciation for him.

Patricia underlines that he didn’t just study one form of dance. He studied everything — history, literature, poetry and mathematics. And Kelly wasn’t just that athletic all-American guy. He wasn’t only a tap dancer, but a classically-trained ballet dancer who also conceived what you saw and positioned the camera for what we saw.

Hamburg Ballet artistic director John Neumeier, San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson, Joffrey Ballet principal dancer Fabrice Calmels, American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Roberto Bolle. The name that they give is Gene Kelly as the man who got them to dance. It’s not Baryshnikov. It’s not Nureyev. It’s Kelly.

“He made it okay for a guy to dance,” Patricia explains. When he saw Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in Pittsburgh, he auditioned and was offered a position in the corps de ballet. But he turned it down, because he didn’t think he could support his family on that salary.

Kelly could go on to study with modern dance pioneers like Martha Graham, Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey, plus some Spanish dance along the way.

He saw the interconnectedness of it all. So if a young artist asked, “What should we study?” He would say, “Everything.”

Maybe that’s why he touches people in so many ways.

 

This Renaissance man conceived a completely different style of American dance. “It’s not what Astaire was doing, continuing the tradition of ballroom dancing,” says Patricia. “This was dance that furthered the plot and was incorporated into the plot. Singin’ in the Rain is understood around the world. Instead of saying that he’s in love with a girl and is so happy, he does it all in motion. That was really a shift, something that wasn’t seen before him.”

She continues, “That was the challenge for him — not only to make something that’s really contemporary, but something that’s timeless.”

That’s what still inspires Patricia, who always watches the clips during her talk. ”The funny thing is that I have to remind myself to go back on stage because I get so caught up in what’s going on and I hear the audience responding. It’s a selfish thing for me, because I get so much out of it. I guess it was also a way of dealing with the absence and the loss because it makes him so continually present and alive.”

Thus she shares the legacy, reaping the rewards of his timeless art. “I’m constantly reminded that this is stuff that holds up,” she admits. “It’s sixty-plus years old, but it’s still really vibrant and fresh.”

Patricia happily provides the link to Kelly’s history. “It was personal for me, but I hear how it touches the people. I see the wit of it, the brightness of what he executed.”

So she will greet people before and after the show, giving it her own personal touch, then will talk to four high schools over the next two days. After rehearsals for the Gene Kelly Awards for excellence in high school musicals at the Benedum Center, she will step on stage to present the final awards Saturday“It’s really Gene on Gene that people are getting,” she says of The Legacy talk. “It’s as close as they’re going to come with this guy.”


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