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'An American in Paris' finally makes it to the Benedum

| Saturday, May 27, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

It's taken seven long years to bring the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera-produced "An American in Paris" to the Benedum Theater stage. The national tour stops in Pittsburgh from May 30 to June 11.

With lush music by George and Ira Gershwin, new choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, and an updated storyline by Craig Lucas, the musical won four Tony Awards when it played Broadway in 2015. The show's out-of-town tryout was held way out of town — at Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, where it received thunderous response from its French audience. Last month, the musical opened in London to great reviews. Next up, a production is planned to open in 2019 in Japan.

Pittsburgh CLO has been involved in the creation and investment of about 27 Broadway shows over the past 20 years, explains Van Kaplan, executive producer. They range from "Kinky Boots" to "Legally Blonde The Musical" to "Monty Python's Spamalot" to "Thoroughly Modern Millie." But this is the first production in which CLO was a lead producer.

" 'An American in Paris' made by Pittsburgh CLO made a lot of sense," Kaplan says. "Not only was it a six-time Academy Award-winning film, it starred Gene Kelly, who was the honorary chairman of our board for many years and he grew up in Pittsburgh. There were a lot of emotional reasons for us to get involved."

Kaplan and his producing partner, Stuart Oken, worked with the Gershwin family throughout the approval process of creating the musical, through readings and workshops. One the concerns was the movie's storyline.

"In 1950, when the film was made, Hollywood was telling very uplifting kind of MGM-type of stories," Kaplan says. "We thought the story was about these young people who were released from the war and found themselves in Paris. Our hero, Jerry Mulligan, was an artist who stayed there after the war. But what they didn't deal with was the realities of what Paris was like in 1950. Paris was war torn in 1950.

"We thought that perhaps if we dealt with a much more realistic story of Paris at this time, that coming out of the darkness of the war into the light of hope and love that our characters find, it might be a more interesting story to tell."

The creative team moved the story back five years, immediately following the liberation of Paris.

"These young people are trying to put their lives back together just as the city of Paris is trying to put itself back together," Kaplan says. "We felt like then it was a story that could be told and would have much more weight than perhaps the lighthearted story that was told in the film."

To bring the vision to life onstage required actors and dancers who could quite literally do it all. They are required to move from serious ballet to jazzy numbers to tap, to be able to sing and to act.

"Casting was always one of the biggest concerns for us," Kaplan says. "But there are incredible dance companies all across this country with wonderful performers, many of which have performed in high school musicals, and have fallen in love with musical theater."

McGee Maddox and Sara Esty in "An American in Paris"

Photo by Matthew Murphy


One of those performers is Sara Esty, who stars as Lise in the national tour. The former soloist with the Miami City Ballet performed the role as an alternate in Paris and was in the ensemble on Broadway. But the transition from ballerina to Broadway musical was not a simple one.

She was sent to an acting coach and a voice coach for singing. A dialect coach helped with her character's French accent.

"I definitely had a little help," Esty says with a laugh. "When you're in a ballet company, you do come across the story ballets, so I was used to acting onstage, but more a kind of pantomime without using words. So that was quite an adjustment. It was quite an amazing process."

The choreography is beautiful, but intense, and the pace is quite rigorous.

"There's a 15-minute ballet at the end after you've done a two-hour musical," she says. "So, it's like, how do I train my body to do the rest of this when I know how to prepare it for dancing. To turn around after a pas de deux and speak is intense. So, it took a lot of training of my body to get it to where it was most comfortable."

With the tour seven months in, Esty says to response has been incredible. "The reviews have been wonderful," she says. "And this touring family is awesome."

Of course, it probably helps that her identical twin sister has joined the tour as her Lise alternate.

When the producers were discussing the tour, she says, "They said, 'We wish we could clone you.' And I said, 'Funny you should say that.' "

Her sister, Leigh-Ann Esty, also danced with Miami City Ballet.

"She auditioned and they were elated that she was a carbon copy of me," Esty says. "It's fun to see her go through the process like I did. It's pretty awesome."

Sally Quinn is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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