Theater & dance

STAGE REVIEW

‘An American in Paris’ soars at the Wang

Sara Esty and Garen Scribner in “An American in Paris” at Citi Wang Theatre.

Matthew Murphy

Sara Esty and Garen Scribner in “An American in Paris” at Citi Wang Theatre.

Let’s face it: There is usually at least a slight dropoff in quality between the original Broadway productions of big-budget musicals and the versions that producers send out on tour.

But that is decidedly not the case with the sublime production of “An American in Paris’’ that is launching its national tour at the Citi Wang Theatre.

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From the graceful lead performers to the swirling ensemble to the dynamic orchestra to the splendidly varied costumes to the dreamlike, ever-shifting sets, “An American in Paris’’ shimmers with a kind of magic. As was the case on Broadway, the real star is Christopher Wheeldon’s ravishing choreography, which makes a strong case for dance as the most expressive language of all. Oh, and there are tunes by a couple of guys named Gershwin.

It all adds up to (if I may borrow and bend a phrase from another notable pair of songwriters) some enchanted evening at the venerable Wang. To see “An American in Paris’’ is to simultaneously experience the aesthetic pleasures of an evening at the ballet and the rush of joy delivered by top-notch musical theater: virtuosity and vitality in equal measure.

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It’s a throwback to those old-fashioned boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back musicals that ask us to accept an inherently preposterous premise: namely, that the personal happiness of two very attractive people onstage is a matter of earth-shaking importance. In the case of “An American in Paris,’’ that’s an especially impertinent thing to ask, given that it takes place in the still-traumatized Paris of 1945, just after the end of World War II, a matter of genuinely earth-shaking importance.

But we do care about the outcome of the obstacle-strewn romance between Jerry Mulligan, an American GI and aspiring painter, and Lise Dassin, a young French ballerina who is concealing a secret about the impact of the war on her and her family.

Jerry and Lise are portrayed by Garen Scribner and Sara Esty, who were alternates in those roles on Broadway, and both are first-rate. Attired in high-waisted pants and a polo shirt, Scribner’s Jerry projects a cocksure confidence that can’t conceal his persistent undercurrent of yearning romanticism. Esty’s Lise is solemnly introverted and watchful, brimming with unspoken or half-expressed thoughts, yet thoroughly spirited when she bursts into dance.

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Also enlisting our sympathies are two other men smitten with Lise: Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson), a quick-witted pianist and composer who functions as the audience’s guide to the proceedings, and Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler), the foppish scion of a wealthy French family, who becomes engaged to Lise and harbors far-fetched dreams, hidden from his family, of being a nightclub performer.

Benson does a superb job tracing Adam’s transition from sardonically detached to sincerely lovestruck. (You sense that the rest of Adam’s career will be spent writing sad, wistful songs.)Spangler conveys the comical aspects of Henri but also his essential decency, keeping the portrayal from sliding into caricature. Also lending strong support are Emily Ferranti as Milo Davenport, a rich and flashy arts patron who enters into a dalliance with Jerry, and Gayton Scott as Henri’s stern, frozen-faced mother.

There are no real bad guys in “An American in Paris,’’ so the musical’s somewhat thin story (the book is by Craig Lucas) is lacking in tension — not that you’re likely to care, or even notice, as you watch the supremely skilled cast pirouetting and leaping across the stage.

This 2015 stage adaptation, which went on to win four Tony Awards, was “inspired by’’ the 1951 film that starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, and it works so well you wonder why that inspiration took so long to seize Broadway.

The touring production abounds in memorable sequences, such as “Fidgety Feet,’’ when Jerry upends a formal, stuffy performance by inciting the (onstage) audience into what practically amounts to a dance riot, or “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,’’ when Henri’s initially clumsy rendition opens up into a soaring fantasy sequence in which he is joined by a high-kicking brigade of men in top hats and tails and women in feathered headdresses.

That’s just a taste of what makes this show special. To fully capture “An American in Paris’’ would take more space than I have and deplete my store of superlatives. Fittingly, though, when the climactic scene between Jerry and Lise finally arrives, neither one of them says a word. Everything they have to say to each other in that moment, they say in dance.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

Music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin. Book by Craig Lucas. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. Musical score adapted, arranged, and supervised by Rob Fisher. At Citi Wang Theatre, Boston, through Nov. 6. Tickets: 800-982-2787, www.citicenter.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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