By Karen Isaacs.
Finally I have seen a new Broadway musical production that I can urge you to immediately plan on seeing. An American in Paris has just about everything: great music, a literate book, inventive sets, lighting, costumes, a cast that is simply marvelous and direction and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon.
As the cast sings at the end of the curtain calls, “Who could ask for anything more?” I can’t.
The show is an adaptation of the famous 1951 film that starred Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant about an American who goes to Paris to become an artist, meets a cynical American (Levant) who is a pianist, and falls in love with a French girl (Caron). The music was Gershwin’s and the book was by Alan J. Lerner. The highlight of the film was the dance—including a ballet toward the end using Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”
Craig Lucas has reworked the book and I think improved it. The show has been moved from the early ‘50s to just after the end of WWI. Our GI (Jerry Mulligan) misses the train that will take him home because he is sketching and pursuing a young woman he has only seen but is captivated by. He winds up in a café where he meets a young American composer/pianist (Adam Hochberg) and a Frenchman (Henri Baurel) who wants to be a cabaret singer but is afraid to tell his rather straight laced parents who expect him to take over the family fabric business. They proclaim themselves “the three musketeers.”
The girl (Lise Dassin) is still a major part of the plot. She is a ballet dancer and somehow – we don’t know how for much of the show– she knows Henri’s parents who treat her as a daughter. He is in love with her but lacks the courage to ask her to marry him. Through a connection between Henri’s mother and a wealthy youngish American woman (Milo Davenport) who wants to support the arts, Lise auditions for a prestigious dance company and is hired. Milo also ensures that Adam, who is the pianist for the company gets the opportunity to write a ballet and Jerry to design the sets.
We have three men — Henri, Jerry and Adam all smitten with the same girl –Lise– but not aware of each other’s interests. Did a mention that Lise just happens to be the girl Jerry was sketching when he missed the train?
You can easily figure out what can happen –including that Milo will takes more than a platonic interest in Jerry. But Craig Lucas who wrote the book has added in some nice twists.
Dialogue is relatively minimal and much of the story is told through the dances choreographed by Wheeldon. The opening, to Gershwin’s Concerto in F, sets the entire scene — from the arrival of the GIs, the liberation of Paris, the punishment of a young woman who had been involved with the Nazis, to Jerry’s sketching, seeing Lise and pursuing her, missing the train and deciding to stay in Paris.
Scenic designer Bob Crowley (who also did the costumer) has collaborated brilliantly with 59 Projections who has done projections. The result is a flexible, every moving set with projections that help set the scenes and add to our understanding of the story without distracting us. Natasha Katz’ s lighting designs are also excellent as is the sound design by Jon Weston. A few quibbles about the costumes — not all reflect the late 40’s fashion with some of them more ’50s inspired and the French characters look much too well dressed for people who have gone through the deprivation of the war and
occupation. But this minor and it is, after all, a musical.
You cannot talk about the cast without also talking about Christopher Wheeldon who both directed and choreographed. A former principal dancer with both the Royal Ballet and the New York City Ballet, he has been choreographing for years but this is an auspicious directing debut. We can only hope he does not get side tracked to films or television but brings his immense talent to Broadway frequently.
Jerry Mulligan played by Robert Fairchild, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, displays not only charm but a very attractive voice and good acting skills. But of course it is his dancing that will take your breath away. Leanne Cope who plays Lise is also primarily a ballet dancer who has been with the Royal Ballet. Again her acting is fine and her voice adequate for the role which has many fewer vocal numbers than Fairchild. He is obviously the primary character; after all it IS the Gene Kelly role.
The supporting actors are excellent. Brandon Uranowitz gives Adam an edge while also singing and dancing well. You realize it is the Oscar Levant character but he makes the role his own. Max Von Essen has charm, a delightful voice and conveys Henri’s uncertainties and lack of confidence. Jill Paice plays Milo Davenport without turning her into a “dragon lady”. She carries more of the singing than Cope — getting to do “Shall We Dance?” “Who Cares?” and “But Not for Me.” As Henri’s mother, Veanne Cox projects the nervousness of someone who has realized how dangerous the world is.
The entire company dances up a storm. This is definitely a dance musical and it is really a ballet musical.
When you combine all the elements including Rob Fisher’s adaptations and arrangements, and the wonderful Gershwin music from the “Concerto in F” to the “Second Rhapsody” and “Cuban Overture” as well as the songs, and you then add in the terrific cast, choreography and direction — the result is a musical that you must see.
An American in Paris is at the Palace Theatre on Broadway at 47th St., Tickets are available through Ticketmaster