An American in Paris
by Nancy Salz, April 2015
Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin
Book by Craig Lucas
Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon
Musical score adapted, arranged and supervised by Rob Fisher
Set and Costume Design by Bob Crowley
Lighting desing by Natasha Katz
Sound Design by Jon Weston, Projection Design by 59 Productions
Starring Robert Fairchild, Leanne Cope, Veanne Cox, Jill Paice Brandon Uranowitz and Max von Essen
It could have been created during the Golden Age of Broadway, so seamlessly integrated is the extraordinary, ballet-driven musical An American in Paris. The George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin score would have been enough by itself. Add to that the dancing, singing, acting, lighting, costumes and scenery (which seems to dance as well) all built on the vision of the newest brilliant choreographer-director, and the effject is overwhelmingly thrilling.
Welcome to the age of Christopher Wheeldon on Broadway.
Wheeldon is well known in the world of ballet. It took Stuart Oken, a lead producer, who had seen Wheeldon’s full-length, narrative work for the Royal Ballet, Alice’s Advertures in Wonderland, to envision Wheeldon as a director as well as choreographer for his new show inspired by the movie An American in Paris. Wheeldon wasn’t so easily convinced. Only after nearly a year and many workshops did he become confident that he could direct as well as choreograph and give this show the unified, unique vision that drives the story.
It is a slightly different story than the movie—more serious and relevant for today. Instead of taking place in Paris five years after the Nazi occupation in WWII, the narrative is set in 1945, immediately after the war, when the emotional wounds of the occupation are still fresh in the people of Paris.
“How can you feel liberated when your city’s been crushed?” asks Adam, the narrator, at the beginning of the show.
Three young men in Paris become friends—Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild), an ex GI and aspiring American artist who decides to remain in Paris for inspiration after his tour of duty, Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz), a composer and Jewish refugee, and Henri Baurel (Max Von Essen), a would be song and dance man and a former French resistance fighter whose parents are still suffering a civilian version of shell-shock. They are all secretly in love with the same young woman, Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope), a French ballet student. Lise owes Henri her life but she falls for Jerry. Milo Davenport (Jill Paice), a wealthy American ex-patriot tries to buy Jerry’s love as she promotes him as scenic designer for a ballet she has commissioned.
The Gershwins’ songs—selected by Rob Fisher, the musical adaptor, arranger and supervisor, Craig Lucas, the book author and former Pulitzer finalist, and Wheeldon from the full Gershwin songbook—drive the characters and the story. Some songs were in the movie, “S’wonderful,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Stairway to Paradise,” but most were not. New songs to the score include “The Man I Love, “But Not for Me,” “Liza,” and an obscure one to most people, “Fidgety Feet.”
The brilliance of Craig Lucas’s book is that it unifies the story. For example, the newly commissioned ballet has scenery by Jerry, music by Adam and dance for Lise. This is a touching, emotional and frequently funny book, especially for Henri’s mother (a spot-on Veanne Cox) and for Adam, who is also the narrator of the story at the beginning and the end.
It is best to forget the movie before seeing this show. While that gorgeous, happy-go-lucky, 1950s classic stands on its own, the movie is just inspiration rather than a blueprint for the musical. The movie is in Technicolor. We see vivid, primary colors in our memory of it. The show, on the other hand, is much more sophisticated in its use of color both in costumes and scenery. A scene in the Galleries Lafayette uses stunning mauves and blues.
The sets by Bob Crowley, who also designed the costumes, never stop moving. The entire cast, principals included, sometimes move small pieces of scenery around the stage. Once backdrops are revealed, moving animation is often projected onto them to stunning effect.
Jerry is brought to life by Robert Fairchild, a principal dancer of the New York City Ballet. Anyone who has seen him dance Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” knows that this man channels Gershwin from the tips of his graceful fingers to his strongly pointed toes. His musicality is charismatic, compelling and beyond sexy (if there is a beyond sexy). His lyric and bravura dancing are both breathtaking. He has some mean jazz moves, too. What’s more, he can sing! Fairchild has said that Gene Kelly inspired him to become a dancer. If the roles were reversed, no doubt he would do the same for Kelly.
Leanne Cope, who plays, Lise, was first seen by Wheeldon in the corps of the Royal Ballet. She has the same naïve, vulnerable presence as the young Leslie Caron did in the movie, but she is very much her own personality—and also a star ballerina who can sing. (In fact, everyone in this production—from chorus to principals—is a triple threat singer-dancer-actor.)
Jill Paice is both icy and sympathetic in her role as the spurned Milo Davenport. Brandon Uranowicz provides perfect comic relief as Adam, and he too can sing and dance. Max Von Essen brings down the house and actually competes successfully with some extraordinary scenery in his big number “Stairway to Paradise.”
Major concert works by George Gershwin are featured in the show: “Concerto in F,” “Second Prelude,” “Second Rhapsody and Cuban Overture” and the title tone poem, “An American in Paris.” Therefore, it is a disappointment that the orchestra includes only 18 players. Is 18 enough? Barely. These days, we are used to hearing Gershwin’s concert music played by a full symphony. The music deserves more players. It also deserves an orchestra that consistently plays together, which did not always happen. Given the size of the cast and, undoubtedly the size of the backstage crew, the producers probably had to save money somewhere. It is a shame that the size of the orchestra suffered—as it all too frequently does.
Wheeldon’s flowing, inventive choreography combines classic ballet, jazz, and show-biz pizazz—although not all in the same number, of course. There are many stand-alone ballets that also drive the story: Lise’s and Jerry’s fall-in-love pas de deux to “Liza.” The ballet school ballet to Gershwin’s “Second Prelude,” and a slightly shortened “An American in Paris.”
There are many musicals opening on Broadway this spring. But 2015 will surely go down as the season that brought us An American in Paris. Some may quibble that the use of an existing score works against the musical’s greatness. Most will quote Gershwin, “who cares?” and compare the show to Oklahoma, A Chorus Line and West Side Story.
Because of Wheeldon and the Gershwins, everything and everybody in this musical flow and float into the spirits and hearts of the audience. Rapid applause and shouted bravos couldn’t quite express our exuberance. To the short list of great choreographer-directors that includes Agnes De Mille, Michael Bennett and Jerome Robbins we should now add Christopher Wheeldon—and say “thank you” to all involved with this sublime musical.