American In Paris
The Palace Theatre
April 1 2015
Henri is the very attractive son of impossibly rich, well connected French establishment figures. But he is in the closet. At least in one way, although possibly two, it is never quite clear. The one that is clear – he wants to perform, to sing in nightclubs, go to America and become a star. His piano playing buddy helps him out and he tries out a set at a local nightclub. This is post-war Paris so the spectre of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich is still strong; there is an underworld glamour/shame to show business.
He starts singing I’ll Build A Stairway To Paradise, tentatively, a little behind the beat, missing the odd dance step. In his mind, however, it is all going fantastically well. He is a hit. We see his mind’s optimistic view. There are dancing girls with feathers for clothes, tall, fit, formally attired male dancers, all backing him, supporting him. A marvellous Art Deco cloth flies in and suddenly there is a kick-line, with Henri centre, that would do the Follies Bergere proud. Everyone kicks high, perfectly in time, teeth dazzling, voices pert and perfect – a captivating line of fabulous footwork. It’s the essence of old fashioned Broadway. Thrilling in every way.
This dream dance sequence is one of two in An American In Paris, a new musical now previewing at Broadway’s Palace Theatre. Based on the famous movie, but with a new book by Craig Lucas, a score adapted, arranged and supervised by Rob Fisher, some extraordinary designs from Bob Crowley and spirited, enchanting direction and choreography from Christopher Wheeldon, this is one of those luxury Broadway treats – a lush, lavish and absolutely gorgeous evocation of the magic of long ago times and big dance extravaganzas.
Very rarely these days do dream dance sequences work unless you are watching West Side Story. Oklahoma’s can test even the most loyal audience; on the other hand, On The Town is managing one effortlessly currently on Broadway. But, in an unparalleled feat, An American In Paris scores bulls eyes with both of its dream sequences, each for very different reasons.
Henri’s is exuberant, hopeful, spirited and flamboyant. It is a fabulous production number enhanced by superb singing, faultless precision choreography, and a relentless momentum as the piece builds: voices and dancers are added, the key of the music changes, the set melts from one place to another, the step-kick line slams into action just as the drop cloth and set additions all fall magically into place, creating a perfect sense of Hollywood/Broadway excess and magic.
The second is the climax of the show, the ballet set to the title composition. Happily, everything in the reworked book has prepared for this sequence, so when it comes, it feels both natural and desirable – and, emotionally, visually and aesthetically it blows you out of the water.
Lucas refashions the movie story in admirably clever ways. It still feels slight and wafer thin in sections, but then so does silk. Silky, smooth and sexy is exactly what Lucas has aimed for and he scores an easy bullseye. Instead of a love triangle, there is a triangle of men, all friends, all unknowingly in love with the same woman, Lise, a gifted ballet ingenue. Adam is a composer, Jerry is a demobbed artist and Henri is the wanna be cabaret star.
Henri’s parents want him to marry Lise and he says he wants to as well, but something is holding him back. Jerry chances upon Lise in the streets of Paris, more than once, but she eludes him, careful of propriety. Milo Davenport, a rich American socialite, takes a fancy to Jerry and wants to assist him, hoping for a more amorous connection. Milo offers to bankroll the Ballet Company’s season if Adam can compose a short piece and Jerry can design it. Henry’s parents are delighted by all this, and announce the engagement of their son to the soon to be prima donna, Lise. This fractures the friendship between the three men, but each must carry on.
Finally, Adam has completed his ballet and Lise must perform it. He has composed An American In Paris and we see both sides of the stage as it debuts, the cast’s perspective and the audience’s. We also see the ingenious way Bob Crowley has taken the artwork that Jerry produced earlier in the show and used it as the thematic linking material for the ballet sequence: the colours are vibrant, the physically perfect dancers are hugged by fabrics and part costumes which emphasise Jerry’s palette and design touches and which enchant in an intensely romantic way. Most impressively, the Matisse/Picassoesque set that Jerry uses, when lit the right way, becomes the most traditional spot for Parisian romance – beneath the Eiffel Tower, looking up. It’s a breath-taking visual effect.
Lise has nerves and needs to imagine her true love, Jerry, being part of the ballet to give herself the courage she needs to perform. And so Jerry dutifully appears and they dance exquisitely beautiful passages, technically demanding but throbbing with totally committed adoration for each other. They are dressed in black and red, and contrast and complement the otherwise mostly pastel world of Jerry’s design. It’s a big call to say this choreographed sequences tops the film, but if it doesn’t, it certainly comes within the proverbial cats’ whisker. Sheer, rapturous delight.
The score is chock full of great songs. Cleverly, songs often associated with female vocalists are sung here by men, as trios, giving them a fresh life which is welcome: I Got Rhythm, ‘S Wonderful, They Can’t That Away From Me. Jerry has great numbers which show off his dancing prowess: Liza, I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck and Fidgety Feet, in particular, all with dazzling dance arrangements by Sam Davis.
Casting is faultless and this is probably the best looking, most innately stylish, cast of any Broadway show now playing. Robert Fairchild, in his Broadway debut, is revelatory as Jerry. He cuts a dashing, virile figure, dances with remarkable joie de vivre and exceptional grace, handles the drama assuredly, and sings very very nicely. He is perfect leading man material, affable, engaging and transfixing.
Also making a Broadway debut is Leanne Cope, who is a shimmering flower of elfin glory as Lise, the ballet diva in the making who inadvertently steals the heart of three friends. Cope is superb. Without labouring it, the backstory of her character informs everything she does, delicately but insightfully. Watching her perform the role is like watching a perfect rose come to full bloom. She is delightful in absolutely every way and mesmerising when she dances. She and Fairchild have exceptional chemistry.
Max von Essen triumphs as Henri in a cleverly judged, gloriously sung, pitch perfect performance. His accent, his comic timing, his ebullient delivery of his big number, the wonderful confrontation with his father (an austere but splendid Scott Willis), his debonair footwork – every aspect of his performance is scintillating. Henri’s angst over Lise and the desperation of his own dreams fuels the piece as much as the love story of Jerry and Lise. His classic matinee idol looks round off a tour de force of the musical theatre.
The luminous Jill Paice does exemplary work in the tricky role of Milo, the squizzillionaire who tries to buy Jerry, body and soul. Paice is wonderfully warm in her glossy gowns and remarkable haute couture (Crowley has great fun with her scintillating outfits) craftily taking the unpleasant edge off her character’s actions. She sings and dances divinely, every inch the femme fatale. Brandon Uranowitz is excellent as the anguished and slightly crippled, physically and emotionally, composer Adam. His wry comedic spin on the character is first rate.
Veanne Cox is arch and tightly coiled as Henri’s appearances-are-everything mother, encapsulating the French disdain for impropriety magnificently. So perfect is she that one longed for her to have a number where she could let down her tightly coiffured hair and swing her starched skirts.
The company are terrific throughout the show and the dancing scene changes are a delight. The big numbers are all delicious, each in different ways. The over-the-top exuberance of the scene in the perfume shop; the silly, infectious, rebellious fidgety feet sequence at the ballet fundraiser. The full spectrum of dance possibility is mined here by a troupe of skilled, starry performers. Every one.
Crowley’s set is endlessly inventive. There are a myriad of locations, most of which are sketched out in some way or other; silvered screens, delicately painted back cloths, landscape frames, eclectic furniture – all are used, casually and elegantly, to summon up an impression of Paris. At times, you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at Jerry’s art folder, which is probably the point. Without huge pre-built sets, Crowley creates a never static vista of Parisian streets, monuments, parlours and performance venues. It all contributes to the cinematic feel of the dreamlike qualities which propel the production.
Todd Ellison ensures Gershwin’s score gets full, lustrous value from both the large pit orchestra and the performers. Vocally and musically, An American In Paris is all is needs to be – and more. The quality of sound is sheer bliss. Christopher Wheeldon’s vision here, as director and choreographer, is remarkably detailed and endlessly luxurious and ambitious.
A wonderful achievement and a real slice of the way things used to be on Broadway. Just a delight.