When Tom Mattingly was a child, he idolized dancers such as Gene Kelly. The former Ballet West principal dancer would watch with awe as Kelly would glide across the screen.
“I wanted to be Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Mikhail Baryshnikov,” Mattingly said. “I was totally inspired by any male dancer who was making a living of it.”
So it’s particularly exciting that he is appearing in the iconic Kelly musical “An American in Paris,” which is playing at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City on Oct. 10-15.
The show follows the love triangle of a World War II veteran who stays in Paris after the war to pursue his dream of becoming an artist, his best friend and a mysterious woman he encounters.
The ending of the movie is seared into Mattingly’s mind — he remembers the huge ballet with women dressed in large black and red skirts in all their Technicolor glory.
The musical is inspired by the movie but adapted to develop the characters more deeply, he said. One change, for example, is that the character Lise still works at a perfume counter, but she is an aspiring ballerina in the musical to give her more dimensionality.
The production won more awards than any other musical in 2014.
Audiences seemed to connect the best with the show’s choreography and music, Mattingly said. The set pieces and projections used throughout the play bring the story to life. But it’s the music that breathes the soul into the show.
“The Gershwin tunes are incredible and absolutely timeless,” Mattingly said. “It’s a new musical, but it has the feel of an American musical from times past.”
Some of Gershwin’s most famous songs are in the musical, including “I Got Rhythm,” “’S Wonderful” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
Mattingly is a swing, which is essentially an understudy for five of the nine ensemble male roles, and an understudy for two characters. That means he has to seamlessly take over roles onstage. In any given week he will perform anywhere from two to eight shows and potentially take on a different role each performance. But it’s a chaos he enjoys. When he tried out for the musical, he worried he would get bored playing the same role every night for months on end.
“I have to remind myself while I’m onstage whom it is I’m performing,” he said. “It’s stressful, but it adds a lot of variety. It’s been good for me.”
While he always has enjoyed singing, he never was formally trained. That is true of much of the chorus, and he has honed his voice skills along with his castmates.
Mattingly will leave the cast after the Salt Lake City performances, and this musical likely will be the last time he dances full time. After he takes his touring friends to his favorite dim sum place, Cafe Anh Hong, and catches up with old Utah friends at Bar X, he will return to his most recent home of Chicago. There, he will continue dancing as well as teaching and working as a choreographer.
“Teaching is really where I feel like I can give back the most,” he said.
It was a teacher who set him on his career path, after all.
He started dancing at age 4, when a teacher at his sister’s ballet school in Ridgecrest, Calif., saw him mimicking the girls’ ballet moves. His family couldn’t afford to send both children to classes, but the school offered him free tuition until they could. He continued to dance throughout his childhood, and he graduated from the Virginia School of the Arts, a boarding school for ballet. He danced for Ballet West starting in 2008, and after six years, he finished as a principal dancer.
His last week performing in the show will be a poignant one. But he’s excited to begin wrapping up his full-time dance career in the city where he performed for so long.
“I’m excited to come back to Salt Lake City,” he said. “It’s a very fitting place to say goodbye to the show.”
An American in Paris
Set to the songs of George Gershwin, the musical explores the story of a World War II veteran, a mysterious French woman and the City of Lights.
Where • Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main, Salt Lake City
When • Oct. 10-15; Tuesday-Thursday, 7: 30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, 6:30 p.m., with matinees Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.
Tickets • $45-$100, available at https://artsaltlake.org or the Eccles Theater box office