Sunday, February 18, 2018

American in Paris, in Madison

Maddox (Jerry) and Walsh (Lise) photo by Matthew Murphy 2017
The 2015 Broadway musical American in Paris, directed and choreographed by balletworld superstar Christopher Wheeldon, won a slew of awards the year of its debut, including – no surprise – the Tony for best choreography.  The show closed on the Great White Way in the fall of 2016; its US tour was launched at the same time. The touring production (now nearing the end of its run) lands at Overture Hall on February 26 (through March 4). 
What’s exciting about this show – and precisely what makes it a departure from other Broadway tours – is, of course, the choreography.  Wheeldon trained at London’s Royal Ballet and joined New York City Ballet as a dancer in the early 1990s. There he emerged as a whiz kid of dancemaking, becoming NYCB’s resident choreographer in 2001. Since then he’s created twenty ballets for City Ballet and many more for the Royal and just about every other major company you can think of. 
The rights to perform a Wheeldon work are a feather in the cap of any regional company, so it’s worth noting that there’s a Wheeldon pas de deux on Madison Ballet’s next repertory program, “Rise,” at Overture’s Capitol Theater (March 30-31).
American in Paris is Wheeldon’s first Broadway production, and rumor has it he was hesitant to take it on. But in historical perspective it’s a logical progression.  NYCB is practically synonymous with the late, great master of twentieth century neoclassical choreography George Balanchine, who loved American popular culture and choreographed works for a number of Hollywood movies and Broadway shows, most famously the ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” for Rogers and Hart’s 1936 musical On Your Toes, a story about a stripper and a hoofer; the original production starred Balanchine’s first wife, Tamara Geva, with song-and-dance man Ray Bolger – the Scarecrow in the movie Wizard of Oz. 
Jerome Robbins, whose legendary ballet-plus-musical theater career was inextricably tied up with Balanchine and NYCB, was the king of Golden Age Broadway dance – the brilliant choreography in West Side Story, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof (to give just a short list) is his.
In all of those productions, and in fact, always, the movie has followed the show – but Wheeldon turned that formula on its head, taking Vicente Minnelli’s famous 1951 movie starring the Gershwins’ much-loved score plus Gene Kelly (as the American, Jerry) and Leslie Caron (as the French gal, Lise), as his point of departure; if the movie was mostly a tap vehicle for Kelly, Wheeldon’s story is rendered almost entirely in ballet.
His original cast featured former NYCB principal Robert Fairchild, who departed just last fall after dividing his time between the company and the show to pursue new opportunities in musical theater, and Leanne Cope, who Wheeldon plucked from the Royal’s corps de ballet because he’d heard she could sing. The original stars almost never do the tours, but it’s impossible to imagine Wheeldon giving these roles to anyone who doesn’t have what it takes.  In Madison we’ll see Mcgee Maddox, former National Ballet of Canada principal as Jerry, and former Joffrey soloist Allison Walsh as Lise.
I wanted more details, so I caught up with the show’s dance captain and resident dance supervisor Christopher Howard by phone last week. Here’s what he had to say:

CulturalOyster: Please tell me a little about you as a dancer, for starters.  Is ballet your primary dance language?  Where did you train?

Howard: So the bulk of my training was at Joffrey New York – I studied there for two years after I got my undergrad degree at the State University of New York at Buffalo in music theater and dance.  After the Joffrey School I danced with Dayton Ballet in Ohio for one season, and then I went back to New York and signed up to dance on a cruise ship.  That led to doing Broadway tours – American in Paris is my third big touring show.  I was in Billy Elliot two years and then I did three on the new tour of Phantom of the Opera.

CulturalOyster: So tell me about what you do with American in Paris.

Howard: I’m dance captain and resident dance supervisor on this tour, and also a swing in the show, so I do managerial stuff – running rehearsals, teaching new company members the choreography, fixing things in general – and I’m also in the show from time to time.  I fill in for most of  the men in the ensemble when they’re sick or injured or on vacacation.  I also understudy principal roles. I actually cover nine ensemble roles and one principal, the part of Henri [an aspiring entertainer].

CulturalOyster: How did you get started in Broadway productions?

Howard: My roots are in Broadway.  I didn’t start dancing till I was 18.  I grew up as a singer/actor – I knew that’s what I wanted to pursue.  But in college I figured I needed a few dance steps to get good roles, and then I realized that I wanted to be a true dancer. 

CulturalOyster: Have you worked personally with Christopher Wheeldon? 

Howard: Yes, many times. He comes to the tour a lot to check up on us, and he was instrumental in setting the show on the new company when we started this tour.

CulturalOyster: What’s he like to work with?

Howard: He’s really lovely to work with.  What’s fascinating about him as a choreographer is that he takes great pride in his work but he’s very open and willing to adjust steps for dancer’s bodies, so they can perform and look their best as long as what they do still tells the same story.  He’s just a great storyteller through his choreography. 

CulturalOyster: I haven’t seen the show but from what I’ve heard the choreography is done almost entirely in ballet.  That’s different than the movie – I mean, Gene Kelly’s tap dancing is the standout there.  Are there tap numbers at all in the show?  What did Wheeldon do with them?

Howard: We actually still have one major tap number – “Stairway to Paradise.”  It’s in the second act and it’s always a showstopper.  It really has Wheeldon’s style – it’s refined, it has the lines, it’s ballet – but it’s also full-fledged tap.

CulturalOyster: What’s your personal favorite part of this show? 

Howard: I think my favorite part is being part of the experience.  And Wheeldon is such a great storyteller – he’s changed the way we perceive musicals.  He’s really used the dancers and the medium of dance to tell the story.  In the past, dance was sort of superfulous – we sing and act, not dance, to tell the story and create the character development.  So Chris is brilliant in using his dancers and movement to tell the story, in ways we haven’t seen before.  He’s really reshaping the way musicals will be done in the future. 
But it’s not all ballet – there’s a lot of classical ballet but also the tap number; there’s jazz dance, and there’s Gershwin’s incredible music – and there’s the story itself.  And the lighting is so stunning. This show has something for everyone, whether you’re a dancer or not.
 ___________________________________ interview by SK

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