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Nov 29, 2016

‘An American in Paris’ arrives at the Peace Center

Greenville News

Paul Hyde, [email protected]:52 p.m. EST November 23, 2016

Before bringing “An American in Paris” to Broadway, the musical’s producers decided to give the lavish show a trial run in — you guessed it — Paris.

It was a charmed two-month experience for Sara Esty, who was part of that original cast and now stars in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical.

“It was an indescribable feeling,” Esty said. “To do a show that takes place in Paris and then walk outside and actually be in Paris — it just doesn’t any get better than that.”

Sold-out houses in Paris were followed by ecstatic reviews on Broadway, and now the national tour arrives at Greenville’s Peace Center on Tuesday for eight performances through Sunday.

Inspired by the 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, “An American in Paris” follows an American soldier and painter who falls in love with a mysterious French ballerina, Lise, as the city of light seeks to emerge from the darkness of World War II.

“These characters are trying to rebuild their lives and embrace their art while looking for love,” said Garen Scribner, who plays the role of Jerry Mulligan, made famous by Gene Kelly.

“I feel so honored to be doing this role that he created,” Scribner said.

The show features a catchy all-Gershwin score of familiar tunes (“I Got Rhythm,” “’S Wonderful,” “But Not for Me”) and a few rarities (“Shall We Dance?”).

“You really can’t get better than Gershwin’s music,” Esty said, speaking by phone during a recent tour stop in Hartford, Connecticut. “To be able to sing it and dance it is an amazing thing. I’m the luckiest girl alive.”

In many musicals today, dance plays a supporting role behind acting and singing. But in “An American in Paris,” dance — ballet, jazz and tap — is front and center.

“The story is told in the traditional musical theater way,” Scribner said. “The dance is not ancillary but integral to the story. It’s such a joy to perform.”

Esty added, “If you like dance in general, you’re going to love this show.”

Acclaimed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon won a Tony Award for the “American in Paris” dances.

“His mind is so creative,” Esty said. “I’ve never witnessed a genius like that. He is so inspired and not afraid of trying anything. He has no limits.”

Wheeldon searched far and wide to cast the musical. Many of the actors actually come from dance backgrounds rather than from the world of Broadway.

Esty, for instance, was a longtime soloist with the Miami City Ballet.

“Dancing is my forte and the fact that I’m portraying a ballerina is spot-on because that’s what I spent over a decade doing in my life,” she said.

Critics had high praise not only for the dancing and singing but also for Bob Crowley’s Tony Award-winning sets and costumes. The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood said that Crowley’s work “outshines anything currently on Broadway in its blend of elegance, wit and sophistication.”

Scribner, who played the role of Jerry on Broadway, said the touring production replicates the New York staging’s sparkling production values.

“We’re really proud to bring this huge Broadway show across America in the same big beautiful way that we did it in New York,” he said.

Starting in Paris

The national tour, featuring a cast of 35, launched in October and already has 84 weeks of dates scheduled.

Wheeldon’s choreography is so demanding that 10 actors stand by offstage, ready to jump into the show in case of an injury or strain.

“In our show, everyone has to be able to do all three things — singing, dancing, acting — very well,” Scribner said. “I call these people unicorns because it’s amazing what they’re able to do. We feel so lucky to have such a beautiful, multi-talented cast with us.”

Esty, who has been with the show since its 2014 tryouts, reminisced about the production’s first performances in Paris.

“Our dressing rooms looked out over the Seine and we could see the Eiffel Tower on the right and Notre Dame on the left,” she said. “It was incredible, truly remarkable.”

In Paris, the show was performed in English with French subtitles projected on both sides of the stage, she said.

“There’d be a delay for some of the jokes,” she said, with a laugh. “But the French audiences were just incredible. On a nightly basis, we’d have to have three or four curtain calls. We thought we were done bowing and then the curtain would fly back up again.”

For Esty, the magic of those early performances is repeated every night on tour.

“The show is just beautiful,” she said. “I can’t watch from the audience without crying. It’s just breathtaking and I think it leaves the audience with love in their hearts.”

For the latest in local arts news and reviews, follow Paul Hyde on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

YOU CAN GO

What: “An American in Paris,” by George Gershwin (music) Ira Gershwin (lyrics) and Craig Lucas (book)

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Peace Center Concert Hall

Tickets: $25 to $85

Information: 864-467-3000 or www.peacecenter.org