Palace Theatre, New York, NY; June 3, 2015(m)
The new Broadway musical, An American in Paris, is an ebullient combination of ballet and musical comedy dancing, all set to the glorious music of George and Ira Gershwin. The show is directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and is his Broadway directorial debut. His innovative dance steps flows naturally from Gershwin’s music whether the performers are in a night club, ballet studio or even a department store.
The musical is based on the 1951 movie of the same name, but some changes have been made. Playwright and co-creator Craig Lucas has moved the story backwards from the early 1950s to 1945 and at the conclusion of World War II. He has also given the French heroine, Lise Dassin, more of a back story. Lise is Jewish and she was hidden by the Baurels, a wealthy textile family, during the Nazi occupation of France, which helps explain why she feels she must marry the heir to the Baurel fortune when she really loves American painter, Jerry Mulligan – a point never made clear in the 1951 movie.
An American in Paris is visually appealing. It is thrilling to see the moving design pieces endlessly breaking apart and coming together again in new and delightful ways. Set designer, Bob Crowley, and the 59 Production design team deserve great acclaim for their work.
But any show, whether on Broadway or in the ballet world, is only as good as its performers. The shows two leads both come from ballet: Robert Fairchild (Jerry Mulligan) is a principal dancer with New York City Ballet and Leanne Cope (Lise) is with the Royal Ballet. Both are triple threats on stage; they can act, sing and of course dance divinely.
As Mulligan, Fairchild combines the best qualities of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. His moves are very elegant, but there is a natural, easy flow to his dancing. His background is clear, though, and his thrilling leaps definitely belong firmly to the realm of classical ballet.
As Lise, Cope is sweet and lovely with gamine charm. I could not, however, see her as a woman three men would fight over. She seems far too innocent to be a femme fatale.
Milo Davenport (Jill Paice), the wealthy American backer of Lise’s ballet, is a much more sensuous character. She, however, fails to get the man she loves – Jerry Mulligan.
Cope and Fairchild do have incredible chemistry. When they dance together they burn up the stage. Cope had no such chemistry with Max von Essen, who played Lise’s fiancé, Henri Baurel, although this makes sense since Lise does not love Henri in a romantic way.
As the Henri, von Essen’s performance was richly nuanced. He gave some indication that Henri might be struggling with homosexuality, a forbidden subject in the 1940s. Von Essen also has a beautiful baritone voice which he used to great effect in songs like ‘S Wonderful’ and Who Cares? And he tap dances up a storm in the Radio City Fantasy number to I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.
As the show’s narrator (and composer), Adam Hochberg, Brandon Uranowitz was wryly funny. There is, however, a sense of poignancy beneath the irony, beautifully realized in his rendition of But Not for Me which he sings towards the end of the show.
An American in Paris has the Gershwins’ music, Wheeldon’s choreography and scores of wonderful actors, singers and dancers. As Ira Gershwin put it, “Who could ask for anything more?”