A New Production of An American In Paris at the Detroit Opera House
David Prottas feels immersed in the stage version of An American in Paris in a way that’s unlike any other performance experience he has had.
Professionally, he brings dancing, acting and singing talents to twice-weekly appearances as the lead character, Jerry, and devotes the rest of the week to joining with the ensemble.
Personally, he relates to the Jewish elements that make this production different from the acclaimed 1950s movie filled with George and Ira Gershwin songs.
“The structure and tone of this show are different from the movie,” says Prottas, 30, who can be seen Nov. 28-Dec. 10 at the Detroit Opera House. “The play brings a little more backstory that the movie didn’t touch. There’s also more weight to every character.”
As the storyline is enhanced by songs such as “’S Wonderful,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay” and “But Not for Me,” the audience follows the romance of Lise, a French Holocaust survivor, and Jerry, an aspiring American artist moving on from military service tensions of World War II.
The show, which won four Tony Awards as it ran on Broadway, has been discussed by Jewish producer Stuart Oken, who told the London Jewish Chronicle about the reasons for the storyline change from film to stage:
“When I sat down to watch [the movie], I thought it’s … about a soldier who had been in the war, but there was nothing about the war in the movie. We had to find a different approach. The people had to look like they had just gone through the war, which meant making them much younger and, in the case of Lise, we decided that she had been in hiding.”
Taking on the lead role requires considerable onstage time and so the need for rotating actors.
“I’m the Jerry alternate so neither one of us has to do the show twice in one day,” Prottas explains. “We have two shows on Saturday and two shows on Sunday. I perform in the ensemble four nights a week, Tuesday-Friday. In addition, I cover another principal role, the composer, [also a Jewish character].
“I was with the New York City Ballet for 10 years so to be able to have such a meaty role that requires so much of myself as a dancer, actor and singer has been the challenge of my career.”
In his first tour with a Broadway show, Prottas builds on a lifetime of interest in dance. Growing up in Boston, he was homeschooled for regular studies and took dancing classes.
“I started dancing classes when I was 7 after dancing around the house before then,” recalls Prottas, winner of the Jerome Robbins Scholarship and the Christopher Ondaatje Ballet Prize. “I studied briefly at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, where I was a day student at this private boarding high school.
“I moved away from home at 14 and spent three years at Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto. When I decided to move away from home, I knew that I was taking this seriously and pursuing it beyond a recreational activity.”
After finishing the Canadian program, Prottas went on to the School of American Ballet, which is associated with the New York City Ballet. The following year, he was asked to become an apprentice before accepting a full placement.
The only entertainer in his family, Prottas was joined in home schooling by older twin sisters; one became a therapist and the other a teacher. His dad, a painting contractor, and mom believed there could be more intellectual opportunities with independent study.
It was through later independent coaching by experts in their fields that Prottas enhanced his acting and vocal abilities.
“Both my parents were raised Jewish, and I consider myself Jewish,” says the touring artist, who is based in New York and dating a former fellow show member. “I did a Birthright trip to Israel about four years ago, and it was really fascinating. It’s part of my heritage and who I am, and it makes doing the show so special. There are so many Jewish themes.”
One of those themes has to do with the Baurel family, who hid Lise from the Nazis.
While Prottas has the city of Paris on his mind as he takes to the stage, he has many cities to think about when he leaves the stage — close to 40 so far on tour.
“The show was still running on Broadway when I auditioned, and I’m glad I did,” he says. “I enjoy exploring cities we’re in, and I like taking various exercise classes in those different cities to keep in condition.”
The Detroit Opera House is a familiar venue to Prottas, who has appeared in mixed repertory ballet presentations on its stage. With An American in Paris, he feels a special connection to the elaborate dance numbers, considering “I Got Rhythm” a quintessential piece of musical theater and “Fidgety Feet” a lot of fun in its choreography.
The dancing is what made him want to audition.
“I knew this show featured a lot of ballet and required high-caliber dancers,” he says. “I also knew Christopher Wheeldon, our director and choreographer, from my years at the ballet. It felt like a good fit and the right step to take. I was ready for a change and to move on.”
An American in Paris runs Nov. 28-Dec. 10 at the Detroit Opera House.
Tickets start at $29. (313) 872-1000; broadwayindetroit.com.
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