You don’t have to know the classic 1951 movie musical to be disappointed by this 2015 stage version, but it helps. Where the original (directed by Vincente Minnelli from a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner) was lighthearted and funny and utterly charming, the 2015 version is dark and complicated and only intermittently funny. The problem lies with Craig Lucas’s book, though given the intensely collaborative nature of Broadway musicals one never knows if Lucas dreamed up the myriad bad choices in his story or was strong-armed into making them.
Lucas keeps most of the characters and the same basic story (American expat meets French woman, American expat loses French woman, American expat gets French woman back), but he mixes in unnecessary additional characters, distracting subplots, and an overly detailed backstory involving the Nazi occupation of France and the Holocaust. (The stage version is set in the year after the August 24, 1944, liberation of France.)
Luckily, the folks who put together the musical never lost sight of the fact that the heart of the show is George and Ira Gershwin’s winning songs—some of which appear in the movie (“I Got Rhythm,” “‘S Wonderful”)—along with selections from other musicals (“Shall We Dance?,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”).
The Drury Lane orchestra, under the direction of Chris Sargent, does Gershwin proud. As does director/choreographer Lynne Kurdziel-Formato and her ensemble of triple threats. The dance sequences in the show are to die for, each one bigger, stronger, and more amazing than the previous one. Even more impressive, though, is her cast, who face the formidable task of competing with the likes of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. Josh Drake is almost as likeable as Kelly in the lead role of Jerry Mulligan, and Skyler Adams gives the film’s Eeyore-like Oscar Levant a run for his money as Jerry’s friend, Adam. But the real revelation in the show is Leigh-Ann Esty, who reveals the grit and fire in Lise, a character Caron only succeeded in making cute. v