Lawrence Toppman

One intoxicating ‘American’ redefines what theater can be

Christopher Wheeldon won a Tony Award for his choreography of “An American in Paris.”
Christopher Wheeldon won a Tony Award for his choreography of “An American in Paris.”

I stopped taking notes 15 minutes into “An American in Paris” and put down my pen. I figured at least one thing in Belk Theater should be at rest.

Dancers swirled and soared through Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography. Sets spun and slanted across the stage, as the nimble cast of two dozen shifted precisely amid them. (Wheeldon directed, too.) Projected views of the City of Light appeared and dissolved on the backdrop. Around all this whirled tunes by George Gershwin, cleverly orchestrated for a pit band by Christopher Austin and Bill Elliott.

This may be too much dazzlement for theatergoers used to ordinary musicals. Maybe that’s why Wheeldon gives Act 2 a more conventional structure, except for the climactic ballet. Yet the show never felt long at two hours and 45 minutes, because he created a hybrid I have never seen: a musical where theater and ballet are core elements of equal importance, inextricably intertwined.

Wheeldon thinks kinesthetically, expressing himself through movement even among tunes and words. No local company would (or should) attempt this show in this fashion. So if you want to see it, go to the Broadway Lights tour this week.

Writer Craig Lucas has deepened and, in one instance, cheapened Alan Jay Lerner’s screenplay for the 1951 movie. The show now takes place immediately after the liberation of Paris; Nazi swastikas give way to a French flag in the opening moments.

Pianist-composer Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson) is now a Jew, an ex-soldier with a leg that’s either crippled or artificial. (Oscar Levant, who played a version of this role onscreen and gets a shout-out here, was a Jew in real life, but his uninjured character was named Cook.)

Adam befriends ex-G.I. Jerry Mulligan (Garen Scribner), who stays in Paris to paint and gets taken under the wing of man-hungry socialite Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti). Meanwhile, Adam falls for young Lise Dassin (Sara Esty) after a series of close-call meet-cutes and one meet-ugly, as he interrupts an assault by American soldiers.

Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler) isn’t a song-and-dance man, like the film’s Georges Guetary: He wants to be a song-and-dance man instead of running the family business. Characters hint that his long-standing but tepid relationship with Lise has stalled because he’s gay, an irrelevant insertion that’s never resolved.

Lise has been made a ballerina, which explains the wonderful piece in Act 2: a romantic dream ballet for her and Jerry set inside her star-making expressionist ballet at Theatre du Chatelet. (Wheeldon does those in completely different but appealing styles.)

Every person in the show, from the five leads to the wing-footed chorus, has a firm grip on Wheeldon’s choreography. He plays to strengths: Scribner and Esty were ballet soloists at major companies, so they get the elegant pas de deux; Spangler and Benson (in a fantasy) tap with showgirls and chorus boys in a Vegas-style “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.”

This show won well-deserved 2015 Tonys for choreography, orchestrations, scenic design and lighting design. That was the big year for “Fun Home,” acclaimed for its revolutionary subject matter (and also coming here, in June). Yet in its way, “An American in Paris” rethinks just as radically what musicals could be.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘An American in Paris’

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

Running time: 165 minutes.

Tickets: $25-$124.50.

Details: 704-372-1000;