An American In Paris is a wonderful, if sometimes leisurely, night out: there is a high degree of professionalism and some wonderful moments when movement and song and orchestra and acting all combine in a pyramid of poetic invention that makes you just long to be wandering down the quays of the Seine in the small hours hand-in-hand with a lover, or just with your unique memories of what it is to be young, unblotted by time, and with a future beckoning you on…….
This sumptuous stage update of the Minnelli-Kelly 1951 classic movie has sailed across the Atlantic after an award-winning period on Broadway and settled down for a run right through the summer at the Dominion Theatre, whose spacious Deco proportions form an appropriate backdrop for a musical evening devoted to show-casing the finest songs of Ira and George Gershwin.
No expense has been spared in terms of costume and design (both the work of Bob Crowley on top form), and with Craig Lucas’s new book, fresh musical arrangements of a wider selection from the Gershwin Songbook, and choreography and direction from Christopher Wheeldon, there is no aspect of the original or other stage versions from different periods that has not been reassessed and rebuilt from scratch. It really does aim to be a ‘total work of art’ encompassing all the art forms in one….
The outlines of the story remain the same: Jerry Mulligan, an American GI in 1945, decides to stay on in Paris after the end of the war and make a career as an artist. He falls for gamine shop assistant and wannabe ballet dancer, Lise Dassin, who unknown to either of them becomes the centre of a love triangle the other two corners of which are struggling composer Adam Hochberg and wealthy gentleman of leisure Henri Baurel, who plans a second career as a cabaret singer.
Further complications are created when Jerry accepts the patronage of a lonely arts supporter, Milo Davenport, who inevitably falls for him as much as his art work. And a few final twists of tart lemon are provided by Henri’s mother, a feisty dragon who wishes Lise to marry her son.
So far, so more or less familiar. However, Craig Lucas has tightened and darkened the textures at various points. The opening makes very clear that the City of Light is still recovering from Nazi occupation and is far from a purely carefree capital of escapism. It is a more nuanced and edgy beginning therefore, though the darkness drains away as one luscious upbeat number succeeds another.
The ballet-within-a-ballet that forms the climax of the evening is also much better integrated into the story now, being the focus of Jerry’s artwork and Milo’s patronage rather than a fantasy sequence. These are certainly net gains.
However, it is still very more of a jukebox musical than a seamless whole. This seems a tad churlish to say given the high quality of the production values and the evergreen appeal of the songs, but there were plenty of occasions when yet another gorgeous number unfurled itself simply because it did rather than because it had earned its place in the drama.
If you want an evening where you can sit back and let Gershwin hits wash over you, one glorious breaker after another, then you will not be disappointed; but if you are seeking a well-threaded narrative and tight, economical transitions you should look elsewhere.
Given Wheeldon’s expertise and experience, the ballet sequences do far better in emerging naturally: the transition from dialogue to movement is effected better than the transition from dialogue to song. For example, the inclusion of Fidgety Feet as an audience response to the tedious Uranus tableau put on by Mme Baurel is an inspired and genuinely funny creation; and no one could resist the imaginative flair behind the full-bling, splurging treatment of I’ll build a Stairway to Paradise or the Mondrian-inspired geometric ballet sequence setting the music of An American in Paris itself. These episodes linger long on the retina and have an overwhelming effect in the huge spaces available.
If the direction could be tighter and the show a few songs shorter, there are visual effects elsewhere that provide more compensating continuity. The sets and costumes are simply a feast to the eye and a stimulus to the imagination.
With a big budget to play with Crowley has let himself go, as street scenes and glossy jazz-age interiors slide effortlessly up and down and in and out without a hitch, and the Seine glistens for the most romantic moments. The number and range of costumes is a miracle of wardrobe coordination, free-wheeling flair, and attention to detail.
All the acting and singing is solid though only some is outstanding. This is fair enough when the central characters have to be dancers first and foremost: Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope repeat their Broadway success with a real chemistry and the choreography lends them moments of real poetry and intimacy as well as bravura power and display.
Probably the best acting comes from the older troupers: Jane Asher makes a lot of the smallish role of Mme Baurel, melting from starch to sugar most elegantly and shaking a leg with the best of them. Zoë Rainey takes every opportunity to show that Milo is a sympathetic and feisty character not a washed-up victim: her rendition of Shall we dance? was a real highlight of the first half.
David Seadon-Young and Haydn Oakley give very strong support as Adam and Henri, both roles that could seem a bit thankless in lesser hands.
In the pit musical director John Rigby found the swagger and swing for the big numbers, but also the inwardness for those special songs like The Man I Love which should never sound stale, however often you hear them. It was a real pleasure to have strings as well as winds and brass: it does make a real difference, not just in the sheen and polish of the sound but also in the projection of a true romantic aura in the self-consciously escapist sequences.
It is easy to omit mention of the chorus simply because they sing and dance and move scenery so adeptly you begin to take them for granted. Yet so many of the effects of this show could not be devised or imagined without the strength in depth of the collective effort: the billowing shape and conceptual daring of the ballet sequences, the bustling street scenes, the masked ball and café ensembles. All rest on that community of shared focus and endeavour on which the best musical theatre relies and which is its true beating heart.
So, all in all, this is a wonderful, if sometimes leisurely, night out: there is a high degree of professionalism and some compelling moments when movement and song and orchestra and acting all combine in a pyramid of poetic invention that makes you just long to be wandering down the quays of the Seine in the small hours hand-in-hand with a lover, or just with your unique memories of what it is to be young, unblotted by time, and with a future beckoning you on…….