Apr 13, 2015
Let’s get some uncomfortable truths out of the way: An American in Paris is a Broadway adaptation of a Hollywood movie. It is a jukebox musical. Its leads are not renowned for their acting and singing abilities; the director is untried. As Adam (Brandon Uranowitz), a New York composer limping through the City of Light, says, “How do you say bleougghhhh in French?”
Mais, non! As directed by the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and starring the dancers Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, An American in Paris is a fine and fanciful entertainment. It redecorates the 1951 Vincente Minnelli musical with a new book by Craig Lucas, and plenty of extra tunes. It has sublime songs and dexterous dancing. ’S wonderful? ’S marvellous? ’S nearly.
A nearly wordless prologue shows how a demobbed Jerry ditches his boat home in favour of an uncertain future in Paris, sketchpad in hand. Soon, he teams up with nebbish Adam and reticent Henri (Max von Essen), a mama’s boy with deep pockets and cabaret dreams. They’re all more or less involved with the lithe Lise (Cope), a shopgirl turned ballerina. It’s her they sing ’S Wonderful about, each in his own little pool of light, each unaware of the other’s affections. A friend of mine, anxious for the outcome, leaned over and whispered, “This can’t end well.” But it does. Mostly.
As befits a choreographer of Wheeldon’s stature, An American in Paris understands that dance is a language all its own, not merely punctuation or something to do during the bridge. Sometimes his choreography is serious, sometimes (as in Fidgety Feet, which is basically a song about being bored at the theatre) it is funny, and in moments such as those when Lise leaps into Jerry’s arms, it is simply divine.
Neither Cope nor Fairchild has a voice that’s big enough for Broadway, though each sings pleasantly. But can they dance! Fairchild is especially skilful at telling story through movement, at times you can see his body determining and prompting his emotions. His shirts are so tight that his next pectoral workout might rip them wide. And would that be so wrong? The story, as well as Bob Crowley’s costumes, allows the men and women equal shares in eroticism. There’s something here for everyone. Well, maybe everyone except French-accent enthusiasts.
Where Wheeldon falters is in pacing and storytelling. Often, the songs, dances and the book all repeat the same plot points. At times, the action stalls while the actors move. And an act 2 revelation about Lise’s involvement with Henri’s family is lavishly unshocking. But if you can ignore the stops and starts, there’s so much to enjoy in between, not least some of the Gershwins’ greatest hits: You Can’t Take That Away from Me, The Man I Love, But Not for Me, I Got Rhythm.
Jill Paice, as the wealthy socialite Milo, gives a lush rendition of Shall We Dance? And really, why not take her advice? “Put on your dancing shoes,” she counsels. “And watch your spirits rise.”