Apr 13, 2015
Seventy years ago there was new musical on Broadway featuring the work of a choreographer who had previously been the exclusive property of the ballet world. Inspired by the symphonic jazz of Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins seamlessly blended dance into the natural movement of wartime New York City and On The Town launched the career of a director/choreographer who revolutionized the way dance was incorporated into musical drama.
The breathtaking new Broadway musical inspired from Vincente Minnelli‘s 1951 film An American In Paris is not ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon‘s first Broadway credit, but it’s his first as a director/choreographer, and one can’t help thinking of the greatest work of Robbins as dramatic stage pictures and ravishing movements swiftly and effectively reveal emotions that would require pages of dialogue. It isn’t just the dancing that’s impressive; it’s how Wheeldon places the evening in a heightened reality that embraces a people’s desire to wake from a nightmare and get back to the business of artistic creation.
Though the composer was long gone at the story’s post-war setting, the symphonic jazz of George Gershwin (Concerto In F, Second Prelude, Second Rhapsody, Cuban Overture) is used as the melody of newly liberated Paris rising from its German occupation to move freely once more. The title piece is used as a ballet composed by one of the musical’s characters, but a bit of fantasy incorporates the second act performance of it into the musical’s plot.
New York City Ballet’s Robert Fairchild, who proves himself to be a good actor with some terrific singing chops, plays American G.I. Jerry Mulligan, an aspiring artist so taken with the town that he “accidentally” misses his boat back to the states. He becomes pals with another American, Jewish composer Adam (sardonically-humored Brandon Uranowitz), who gets commissioned to compose a ballet for a dance discovery named Lise (Leanne Cope, another ballet dancer who it turns out can act and sing very well), who is dealing with personal tragedies caused by the war. Jill Paice plays the patron funding the new piece and, attracted to Jerry, pegs him to design it.
Jerry and Adam are both unaware that the other has fallen hard for Lise. They’re also unaware that she is also being pursued by their buddy Henri (delightfully gregarious Max von Essen). Though Henri, who aspires to go to America and become a famous jazz singer, gives off a flakey vibe, it turns out that he and his wealthy family secretly acted heroically during the war, but now they’re in the precarious position of not knowing exactly who their friends are among those of their station. Veanne Cox‘s deadpan dryness as Henri’s mother is crisply comic.
With a score taken from the George and Ira Gershwin songbook (“I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “‘S Wonderful,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”…) the top-shelf songs are naturally not deeply matched to the characters and situations, but Wheeldon’s routines allow them to joyously linger on fun moments. “Fidgety Feet” is used for an explosive bit where Jerry can’t sit still while suffering through a stodgy dance performances and “I’ll Build a Stairway To Paradise” begins as Henri’s attempt to make his cabaret singing debut and evolves into his dream of playing Radio City Music Hall.
Bob Crowley‘s set, a mixture of the classic old city with the emerging style of abstract expressionism, is frequently in motion with the rhythms of the music, well-orchestrated by Christopher Austin (dance arrangements by Sam Davis) for conductor Brad Haak‘s 18 pieces. Projections by 59 Productions give the appearance that we’re seeing the city the way Jerry is sketching it.
New York audiences have grown accustomed to seeing a “new Gershwin musical” pop up every now and then. Hopefully we’ll be seeing new Christopher Wheeldon musicals more frequently. An American In Paris is a thrilling addition to Broadway.