“An American in Paris” is coming to the Fox Theatre from Aug. 15 to 20 and bringing with it such George Gershwin classics as “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm.”
The music and dancing are Etai Benson’s favorite parts of the show. Benson plays Adam Hochberg, the narrator of the musical and a Jewish World War II veteran traumatized by the experience.
Benson, an Israeli-American Jew, has appeared in “Fortress of Solitude,” “My Name Is Asher Lev” and “A Room With a View,” among others. He gravitates toward serious roles that dive beneath the surface.
He took time while on tour in Chicago to talk about playing Jewish characters and how he attracts dramatic roles in a world full of giddy melodies.
AJT: Tell me about why you chose to audition for “An American in Paris”?
Benson: It’s beautiful as far as the dancing is concerned. For people who love musicals, it’s the ideal show. Half of the cast comes from ballet companies. The music is also beautiful. In between acts, you get to hear Gershwin’s orchestral music, something you never hear outside of a concert hall. You’ll hear the “Concerto in F,” and at the end you hear the “American in Paris Symphony.” The show blew my mind the first time I saw it. It’s romantic, serious, funny, and it’s beautiful. There is also more drama and seriousness in this show than in the movie because they changed the story a little bit.
AJT: You tend to take roles in serious productions with a cultural message. Is that purposeful?
Benson: My first big job right out of college was playing Boq in “Wicked.” I loved it. It’s a big show with an important message. It’s as commercial as you can get on Broadway. You can get boxed in. They’ll say, “Oh, he just does big, fun musicals.” I had to work to break out of that.
AJT: Why did you work so hard to break out?
Benson: Being from two cultures, there’s a cultural awareness to me that is important. I studied in Moscow at the Moscow Art Theatre in college, and my parents are travelers. It’s important to me to tell important stories. I got into this to tell stories, not for money or fame, and I seek characters that are an expression of my worldview. The “American in Paris” character is a prime example of that.
AJT: How is Adam Hochberg an expression of your worldview?
Benson: He’s an American Jew, and his outlook on life is so similar to mine, it’s scary. He was injured in the war and stays behind in Paris to work on his art and music, but because of what he saw in World War II as a Jew, he is mired in darkness. He thinks his art has to be dark and heavy, but once he falls in love, he realizes art doesn’t have to be dark. It can serve to bring people hope.
AJT: You played in the Jewish production “My Name Is Asher Lev,” based on the novel by Rabbi Chaim Potok. What attracted you to that role?
Benson: That is actually my favorite role. It was pretty much a one-man play where I had to keep the attention of the audience for 90 minutes, and, like in “An American in Paris,” I was the narrator. It’s about a young Hasidic boy living in Brooklyn, and he discovers at an early age he’s an artistic prodigy, but family and community don’t approve. It’s a very dramatic story dealing with faith, family and passion. The role was a turning point for me because I never left the stage for 90 minutes. I had to engage the audience, and there was a lot of growth for me.
AJT: What’s the biggest challenge of playing Adam Hochberg in “An American in Paris”?
Benson: In both “My name Is Asher Lev” and “An American in Paris,” I’m the narrator. The very first thing you see in “An American in Paris” is I walk onstage, light a cigarette and set the scene. It’s the same thing in “Asher Lev.” To break that fourth wall is rare, and it’s an opportunity you almost never get. When I did “Lev,” it was in front of 150 seats. I’m speaking to thousands of people every night in “An American in Paris,” and I have to make it seem like I’m speaking to them individually.
AJT: When did you realize you wanted to go into musical theater?
Benson: In eighth grade my friends dragged me to an audition for “The Wizard of Oz.” I didn’t want to do it because I was a cinephile, but I was cast as the Tin Man and was addicted to being onstage. After that, I went to Stagedoor Manor in the Catskills for three summers, and it clicked that musical theater is what I wanted to do, and I’ve been pursuing it ever since.
AJT: What is the one role or production you are dying to tackle?
Benson: I’m dying to play a role that hasn’t been written yet — a role that was created just for me, that I originate. That would be the next big step in my career. My all-time favorite musical is “Sweeney Todd,” and I would love to be in “The Seagull” by Chekhov or do Shakespeare professionally.
What: “An American in Paris”
Where: Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St., Midtown
When: Eight shows from Tuesday, Aug. 15, to Sunday, Aug. 20
Tickets: $33.50 to $113.50; foxtheatre.org/events/an-american-in-paris or 855-285-8499