New York Aisle: ‘An American in Paris’ bounds to B’way stage with balletic flair. S’Marvelous
“An American in Paris,” music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, book by Craig Lucas, with additional Gershwin music. At the Palace Theatre in New York City. ★★★★
By Susan Elliott
NEW YORK – There’s a new triple threat on Broadway. He can sing, he dances extraordinarily, and his acting isn’t bad either. Robert Fairchild, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, is currently making his Broadway debut in “An American in Paris,” the stage version of the 1951 movie musical that starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. With a constant twinkle in his eye and a sense of bonhomie that just won’t quit, Fairchild inhabits the role of Jerry Mulligan, the American GI who decides to stay on in Paris as it recovers from the war to pursue his dream of becoming a professional artist. And what better to sketch than the Eiffel Tower?
That would be Lise Dassin, the ballerina extraordinaire with whom the three male leads fall hopelessly and haplessly in love. In the end, Jerry gets her (of course), less for sketching her mystical visage at every opportunity than for his brilliant dancing. For this Lise is the real thing: Leanne Cope of the Royal Ballet, also making her music theater debut. And if she’s not quite the triple threat of her suitor, she’s close enough to make for an exquisite dance partner.
The third Broadway debut in “An American in Paris,” viewed April 15 at the Palace Theater, is a credit to its producers, who not only invested precious dollars in this $11.5 million project, but also put their faith in a debutant director. Christopher Wheeldon may be one of the world’s most highly esteemed ballet choreographers, but he was, until now, untested as a stage director, much less as a dance maker who can seamlessly bridge the gap between classical ballet and Broadway dance — territory wholly owned by Jerome Robbins.
Despite the preponderance of debutants in major roles, however, this show succeeds on pretty much every level. Craig Lucas applies his book-writing skills (“Prelude to a Kiss”) to the movie’s flimsy plot line, and the classic Gershwin film score (“I Got Rhythm,” “S’Wonderful”) has been augmented by additional gems from the famous brothers (“They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and “The Man I Love,” among others). Even George’s classical works, such as Concerto in F, Second Rhapsody, and Cuban Overture, are included, their lush orchestrations and sumptuous melody lines forming the basis of many of the dance numbers.
Lucas has moved the story back a few years, closer to the war’s end, to create a darker frame at the outset. This is a Paris still in recovery, making attempts to move forward to happier times. As the story unfolds, Jerry, the ever-optimistic would-be artist, befriends Adam (Brandon Uranowitz), a composer whose doom-and-gloom vantage point doesn’t prevent him from writing many of the delicious Gershwin tunes while seated at the ever-present baby grand piano (gutted but for the keyboard).
Adam, who functions occasionally as the show’s narrator, has a day job as the accompanist at a ballet school, where Lise, whom he loves, is prima ballerina. Meanwhile, Lise is pretty much spoken for by Henri (Max von Essen, who sings gloriously), offspring of the aristocratic Madame Baurel (a hilarious Veanne Cox), who, as she sticks her chin out and glances down her nose, wonders why her son doesn’t just propose to Lise and get on with it. Henri, meanwhile, would far prefer to be a cabaret singer than the professional bon vivant Madame envisions.
The family matriarch also happens to be a board member of the ballet school. Meanwhile, the beautiful heiress Milo Davenport (Jill Paice), having spotted in Jerry a candidate for her patronage, not to mention her sexual desires, has announced that she will commission a new ballet for the school: Jerry will design the sets, Adam will write the music, and Lise will be the star ballerina.
It’s the perfect setup for a show that dances across the stage and out onto 47th Street. Through a series of moving vertical panels holding image projections both real and abstract, Bob Crowley has created a set that can function as a bare ballet stage and a glittery, over-the-top showbiz backdrop. The former supports the three ballet sequences (the big one being the “An American in Paris” finale), while the latter hosts several full-cast production dances that cover the range from soft-shoe to Rockettes-style kick line to ballet. (Wheeldon’s pas de deux are his forte). An army of orchestrators and arrangers has been enlisted to bring the score to glorious life, all under the supervision of Rob Fisher, a name frequently associated with Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein revivals. And in a particular triumph for Broadway, there are 19 pieces in the orchestra, conducted on this occasion by Todd Ellison.
Wheeldon moves the huge cast with the skill of a seasoned pro, and while he may not be Jerome Robbins’ heir apparent, he comes pretty close. The loving care that has been painstakingly applied to “An American in Paris” by its creators and restorers is everywhere apparent. The result is stunning show, surely headed for Tony Award fame.
Susan Elliott, former performing arts critic for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, edits MusicalAmerica.com
- Ticket info for ‘An American in Paris’ at the Palace Theatre in New York City: Get details here