Last week was a big disappointment on the theater scene for me– two plays I couldn’t wait to see came up short. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS which just opened its national tour onstage at the new Boch Center’s Wang Theatre (through November 6) is gorgeous to look at with great choreography, sets, costumes, and music– but a book that left me bored out of my mind. TIGER STYLE over at the Huntington has a killer first act–and a second act that almost killed me.
Let’s begin abroad with “AN AMERICAN IN PARIS: A New Musical”about three guys (an American soldier who paints, a depressed pianist, and an aristocratic nightclub singer) who all fall in love with the same French gal in the aftermath of WWII. The show won four Tonys on Broadway in 2015 so I am definitely the lone voice crying in the wilderness here. Inspired by the 1951 Oscar-winning Best Picture, the show features music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin– preceded by George’s orchestral work of the same name.
Christopher Wheeldon’s balletic choreography thrills, as do the gorgeous sets, drawn and projected, sky blue pink sunsets and Parisian cityscapes. The women are like flowers in their Dioresque costumes with pinched and peplumed waists bursting into billowy skirts. I even loved the casting of Lise Dassin– a reed thin dancer extraordinaire with a clear voice, adorable haircut, who exudes full-on gamine charm. Sara Esty is perfect in the part.
The men–not so much. Garen Scribner as Jerry the “soldier/artiste” Mulligan lacks charisma until the last number when he finally generates some heat in the climactic ballet with Lise. But in a misguided number he redubs her “Liza” in a sexist turn that turned me off. I prefer Tony’s approach to Maria whose name was “the most beautiful sound” he ever heard in WEST SIDE STORY. The tortured composer Adam is played with a limp by Etai Benson who steps on every joke. And there aren’t many. Nick Spangler as the prissy aristocrat who wants to sing and dance has a nasal–though pitch-perfect voice- but an or-REE-bluh French accent.
But the biggest problem is Craig Lucas’s blunt, underdeveloped book– did you know Lise was Jewish? Adam was gay? or perhaps Henri? These might be spoilers but there’s nothing to spoil– no tension, no doubt about who’s going to get the girl, and nothing about these flatter than cardboard characters to get worked up about. Oddly, many of the Gershwin tunes feel tossed off, and at least one number called “Fidgety Feet” just feels plain out of step. But nothing disappointed me more than the climactic last ballet sequence which finds the dancers lost in an hilariously self-conscious fit of abstract expressionism, their bright, color-blocked costumes, channeling Jerry’s dorky “modern” designs.
Then there’s Mike Lew’s new comedy TIGER STYLE presented by the Huntington Theatre Co. at the BCA Calderwood Pavilion (through November 20). The title is a reference to the ferocious parenting style of a Chinese couple who’ve raised a pair of Chinese-American high achievers with low self esteem. There’s Albert Chen (Jon Norman Schneider) a hardworking computer wiz who’s continually passed over for promotions in a corporate world which values relatability over skill. His sister Jennifer is a concert pianist/clinical oncologist “with a 100% survival record” whose deadbeat boyfriend leaves her because she’s not exotic enough in bed and too pushy out of it.
Act I is joke-a-minute funny, like a sitcom on speed, while wryly observing the generational divide, the weight of cultural baggage, and racial profiling. The performances (several actors in multiple roles) crackle against an effective, cartoony set, with sharp direction by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. When the sibs decide to confront their parents who they feel have failed them, the elder Chens don’t take the bait and the kids are left adrift. What to do? They go “full Western”– but quickly fail at therapy and climbing the corporate ladder. So they go “full Eastern” and head to Communist China where they seek to unburden themselves of American stereotypes and be free!
It’s a clever idea to flip the settings/and examine the cultural divide from both sides. But what was a smart, outrageously funny sitcom in Act I becomes just plain outrageous in Act II. Act II is nonsensical farce; the comedy blows up in your face like bubblegum stretched too thin. Within minutes of setting foot in the motherland, this overachieving duo suddenly forgets how to walk down the street. As they panic and lose their way, Act I begins to cannibalize act II: a character we met earlier, reappears; a relative pops out of nowhere; spying, hacking, prison, murder, and a sonata ensue. And after that ludicrous detour what did they learn? There’s no place like home, so grow up. What did we learn? The tail of this tiger is paper.