An American in Paris
Review by Kathleen Campion
Forget everything you remember about the 1951 Hollywood film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. The first theatrical adaptation of that script, now at the Palace Theater on Broadway, changes everything.
The biggest change? Christopher Wheeldon, who directs, is by training, a choreographer—a wildly accomplished choreographer, to be sure. (Most recently he created the full-length, story ballet The Winter’s Tale in London.) That said, Wheeldon has never before directed on Broadway. Kudos to the producers who took the chance. As to the doubters? Game over!
Singers and actors have their part to play here, but this is a dancer’s show. Going to his strong suit, the ballet world, for his leads, Wheeldon plucked Robert Fairchild, a principal dancer with NYC Ballet to play Jerry Mulligan and Leanne Cope, of the Royal Ballet, to play Lise. He knew Fairchild to be an accomplished dancer, and he came to admire Cope’s singular presence. Ultimately, he hired dancers whom he hoped could sing and act—a daring casting strategy.
Mr. Fairchild is, not surprisingly, a better dancer, (oh my, what a dancer!), than he is an actor. But, in this piece the dancing matters more.
You may not believe he is in love with the girl, but as he expertly lifts and caresses, curls into her, bends with her, leaps beside and in concert with her, you cannot take your eyes off the pair.
Ms. Cope has less acting and singing to do. She is exquisite in her movement and her execution when solo, but the two together rise to another level in the pas de duex.
This time, Craig Lewis, writing the book, opted for three young men, a painter, a composer, and a singer, to chase the beautiful French girl. Besides underscoring the broad redemptive role of art in the rebirth of France, the gambit offers lots of fresh opportunities with old classics. For example, the three suitors, who don’t know they are in love with the same girl, sing “‘S Wonderful” together, without irony.
Brandon Uranowitz (Adam) is one of these three, the composer, but (more important), our narrator. An American Jewish kid, fresh out of uniform, chooses, like Jerry Mulligan, to stay in Paris instead of going back to the States. He is the conscience of the piece. His tender “But Not For Me” breaks your heart as much as his irreverent asides leave you laughing. We are in his pocket.
The single most significant change is the time frame. The film was set in the early 1950s. Broadway’s American in Paris starts grittier, in the immediate aftermath of the war. The lights still go out, food is still in short supply, and suspicion about collaborators still runs deep.
We start dark and march toward light. Visually the sets and costumes move from blacks and grays to antic reds and yellows. The sets start stark and become positively whimsical. I won’t spoil it for you but there is just a taste of Straiges’ and Ferren’s artistry in Sunday in the Park With George here in set designer Bob Crowley’s magic.
The movement changes from a time-stamped, Andrews Sisters’ finger-wagging, wartime dancing to a dizzying conflation of “then” and “soon-to-be.” The dances are progressively more sensual and stylish, sometimes right on the edge of gymnastic.
Another updating of the 1951 storyline is a gay subtext that presumably wouldn’t have flown in the Hays Office days. At one point there is also a bald mention of Oscar Levant, who played Adam in the film. Levant was rumored to have been involved with George Gershwin, and the line got a self-conscious laugh.
There is nothing self conscious about An American in Paris. It’s dazzling and noisy in the best sense of an American musical. At the same time it puts a canny, majestic lift beneath the patter and pas de deux, as Paris, is redeemed.
An American in Paris
Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin; book by Craig Lucas; directed by Christopher Wheeldon.
WITH: Robert Fairchild (Jerry Mulligan), Leanne Cope (Lise Dassin), Max von Essen (Henri Baurel), Brandon Uranowitz (Adam Hochberg), Jill Paice (Milo Davenport), Veanne Cox (Madame Baurel), Scott Willis (Monsieur Baurel), Victor J. Wisehart (Mr. Z), Rebecca Eichenberger (Olga).
Rob Fisher adapted the musical score, Bob Crowley did set and costume design, Natasha Katz did lighting design. Jon Weston designed the sound and 59 Productions handled projections. Presented by Stuart Oken, Van Kaplan, Roy Furman, Stephanie P. McClelland, Darren Bagert, Carole L. Haber, and James Nederlander.
At the Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway, Manhattan. ticketmaster.com. Through November 2015. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission.