Show: An American in Paris
Society: West End & Fringe
Venue: Dominion Theatre, Tottenham Court Road, London W1T 7AQ
Credits: Music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin and a new book by Craig Lucas. Produced in London by Stuart Oken, Van Kaplan, Roy Furman, Michael McCabe and Joshua Andrews
Author: Ned Hopkins
Perfomence Date: 18/03/2017
An American in Paris
Ned Hopkins | 21 Mar 2017 20:58pm
(l-r) David Seadon-Young, Robert Fairchild and Haydn Oakley in An American in Paris at the Dominion Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
Fed up with Brexit, the SNP and news from The White House – whatever your affiliations? Abscond to Paris forthwith! Well, to the Dominion Theatre anyway. Feast your eyes and ears on the most fabulously staged and designed musical the West End has seen in years – all set to a luscious score garnered from the oeuvre of the great Gershwin brothers.
By chance, I was lucky to see the show twice last week and also have the opportunity to re-consider the 1951 MGM Oscar-winning film which inspired it – note not ‘based on.’ A fellow critic turned to me in the interval and said ‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’ Indeed!
Not since Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed West Side Story has one man, created a stage musical containing dancing of such quality and inventiveness. Christopher Wheeldon – best known for his internationally recognised ballet work – has added political resonance to the plot of the self-styled ‘three musketeers’: two struggling ex-GIs Jerry and Adam, the Frenchman Henri, and their involvement with the same girl, Lise, an aspiring ballerina.
To the haunting accompaniment of the Concerto in F, Wheeldon stunningly kick-starts the dancing as a vast Nazi flag flutters to the ground, signalling the end of the Occupation in 1945. Too raw a backstory for early 50s audiences seeking escapism, the historical perspective now gives the romance much-needed gravitas. In one brilliantly edgy moment, a female Nazi collaborator is tormented by the mob before going off to a who-knows-what fate. It’s a sharp reminder of what war does to society – as relevant as ever.
De-mobbed Jerry, the old Gene Kelly role, and Adam – Oscar Levant in the film – decide to stay on in Paris after the liberation. Jerry is a struggling painter and Adam an unsuccessful composer who is friendly with Henri Baurel – no longer the charismatic musical hall star played by Georges Guetary, but the son of wealthy industrialists who secretly longs to be a cabaret performer. Wheeldon magically weaves fact and fantasy whenever he can, so when Henri finally gets to deliver his amateurish rendition of I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise in a grungy jazz club, someone encourages him to him to imagine he’s at Radio City Hall. From out of nowhere, men in top hats and tails and girls in sequins and feathers materialise to assist him. It’s that kind of show.
Jerry falls for the beautiful, elusive Lise, who is Jewish, unaware that Henri’s family provided sanctuary for her during the Occupation and helped fund the Resistance. Both Henri and his mother hope she will become his fiancée, but though her heart increasingly pulls her towards Jerry, she feels she cannot turn Henri down.
Both Jerry and Lise are played by well-established ballet dancers. As Jerry, New York City Ballet’s Robert Fairchild brings a mesmerizingly droll joie de vivre to his dancing and – the triple threat – also makes a fine singing leading actor. Visually channelling Leslie Caron, the Royal Ballet’s Leanne Cope dances expressively and moves as if on gossamer wings, playing Lise with sensitivity and lending unforced sweetness to her solo The Man I Love. Haydn Oakley – so good recently in Side Show at Southwark Playhouse – breathes as much life into mother’s boy Henri as the role will take, and sings and dances with panache. As Adam, David Seadon-Young is a grounded narrator and contrasts nicely with the other two men
If I found Craig Lucas’ book serviceably literate rather than inspired, it’s because I missed the more robust banter of Alan Jay Lerner’s screenplay, where Kelly’s bolshie Jerry and the lugubrious Levant’s tart humour take the saccharine edge off the clichéd MGM boy-meets-gets-loses-recovers-girl plot. Or, perhaps the temperature and pace drops whenever the music stops simply because Wheeldon being such a masterly musical storyteller, dialogue sometimes weighs down the pace with redundant exposition. This is not too much of a problem, however – mercifully it’s never long before another catchy Gershwin number arrives to move things on.
And what numbers they are, from the solos, duets and trios: Liza, ‘S Wonderful, They Can’t Take That Away From Me and Who Cares? (poignantly coupled with For You, For Me, For Evermore) to the galvanising ensemble pieces! I felt my chest burst from sheer joy during I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck, when the austerity of a post-war Galeries Lafayette explodes into an extravaganza of floral umbrellas and blossom-coloured New Look frocks.
In the other two principal roles, Zoë Rainey makes the man-eating rich-bitch Milo Davenport – who appears to fund every artistic project in sight – a warmer and more likeable character than Nina Foch’s original – and lights up the stage, partnering Fairchild in the sublime Shall We Dance. It’s also a joy to see Jane Asher in a musical for the first time in a sixty-ish year career, adding her distinctive poise and elegance to Henri’s mother Madame Baurel and dancing her high heels off in Wheeldon’s witty staging of Fidgety-Feet.
Throughout the show our eyes are dazzled by designer Bob Crowley’s Paris, supported by the the work of 59 Productions Ltd and Natasha’s Katz’s lighting design, as they constantly merge and move, lending a filmic, even kaleidoscopic quality to the production. Visually, Jerry’s sketches of the city dominate the show: usually white on black before painterly colour seeps through, bringing them to life. Effective use is made, too, of the cast who inconspicuously push around mirrored screens and other scenic pieces by hand to create new locations – apparently, to save the dancers’ feet from the hazards of more sophisticated technology.
For the climactic An American in Paris ballet, Crowley wisely doesn’t attempt to reproduce the film’s tour of Impressionist painters, but has settled on a cubist theme. This is heralded early on when Jerry’s first attempt at an abstract scenic design in pastels is torn up by the less-than appreciative Ballet Master. Milo rescues the pieces and creates her own montage; this remerges in the design of the final ballet, now influenced more by Balanchine than the Kelly-Minelli narrative version from ‘51.
But nothing goes to waste – every theme is worked through. Orchestrators Christopher Austin and Bill Elliott, along with dance music arranger Sam Davis, have achieved excellent work, too, filleting Gershwin’s songs and concert pieces to create a patchwork quilt of melody that totally supports the action on stage and its subtext.
It remains to be seen if London will respond to this important work as whole-heartedly as New York. Yet, despite my reservations about the book, it is, nonetheless, a Five Star life-affirming show.
Music theatre at its very best!
Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope in An American in Paris at the Dominion Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson