Those seeking escape from the anxiety of election season will not find it in the first moments of "An American in Paris," which opens with the unfurling of Nazi flags in the heart of a great democratic republic.
But the flags soon drop and the mood soon lightens in this beaming production of a musical about the triumph of democratic ideals over the darker promises of fascism. A touring version of the Broadway show opened Nov. 8 in Shea's Performing Arts Center and runs through Sunday.
After that opening moment of fleeting terror, signifying the final flash of Vichy France, the whole gauzy thing washes over you like an impressionist painting. After several otherworldly ballet sequences and endearing renditions of George and Ira Gershwin's most hummable tunes, my model predicts a 94 percent chance that you'll leave the theater with at least a slight grin on your face.
This adaptation of Vincente Minnelli's 1951 movie musical of the same name thrives on the exuberance and borderline goofiness of Christopher Wheeldon's choreography. It is the engine that drives its characters through the psychologically defeated landscape of postwar Paris, across a series of increasingly optimistic vignettes and, for the appealing protagonists, into one another's arms.
There's no denying the anachronistic and somewhat rickety construction of this throwback show, which relies on the cheesiest of romantic tropes and struggles to maintain its narrative drive in the second act. But so sunny is its overarching spirit, manifested in Wheeldon's energetic ballets and artful sets and costumes by Bob Crowley, that the hokeyness of the narrative becomes an asset.
The story involves the artistic and romantic aspirations of American G.I. Jerry Mulligan and French ballet dancer Lise Dassin, played in this production by Garen Scribner and Sara Esty.
Scribner's lithe and limber Mulligan has a knack for drawing, which he hopes to parlay into a full-time career with the help of the American socialite Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti, dripping with aristocratic insecurity).
Esty's graceful and timid Dassin also hopes to ride Davenport's coattails to her own career in the ballet, but there are distractions in the form of other suitors: the lovelorn American G.I. and composer Adam Hochberg (Etai Benson); and the anxiety-riddled French performer Henri Baurel (Nick Spangler).
Together, their chemistry is too much to resist. And it takes stunning form in a series of dance sequences -- the first on the banks of the Seine, the second an ecstatic pas de deux in Lise's own imagination -- that add depth to a relationship that seems pretty thin on paper.
The show's piece de resistance, a 16-minute ballet set to George Gershwin's sweeping title song, will have dance fans swooning in their seats. In it, Mulligan and Dassin's love and longing for one another take shape, and the characters become intertwined. Even their artistic appetites take the form of a corps de ballet outfitted in costumes that mirror Mondrian paintings. It is ravishing, as is another dance number inside a Paris department store in the first act
All of this unfolds on Crowley's inventive sets, which for much of the first act mix static set-pieces and purposefully free-handed projections to charming effect. The projections become more obtrusive and cloying as the night proceeds, but they are used in a more artful way than any other recent Shea's production.
In the end, this is a show for lovers of dance, art and democracy. And it makes the connections among those things blindingly clear.
"An American in Paris"
3.5 stars (out of four)
The musical runs through Nov. 13 in Shea's Performing Arts Center (646 Main St.).
Tickets are $35 to $85. Call 847-1410 or visit sheas.org.