The director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has re-envisioned this icon with a panache that borders on the genius, fulfilling the promise he showed with his extraordinary choreography for the 2002 Sweet Smell of Success. This time around, from the windswept opening sequence, with its thumbnail sketch of W.W. II history to the breathlessly simple fade-out, it was clear that Wheeldon was in total command of his material, illuminating all of An American in Paris’ emotional twists and turns.
This is an An American in Paris, with a witty and observant new book by Craig Lucas: no clichéd Frenchmen or caricatured Americans and no white-washing of a country healing from its war wounds.
Lucas has kept the basic framework of the film. Two American soldiers decide to stay in Paris to pursue their different métiers. They meet and become instant friends. Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild, principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, in a charming, charismatic Broadway debut) is the painter who also appears to have highly developed dance skills. Jerry’s happy-go-lucky persona and good looks belie his internal wounds. Brandon Uranowitz is Adam Hochberg, a pianist/composer who has remained to study with Nadia Boulanger, the legendary (true-life) composition teacher. Lucas doesn’t hide Adam’s Jewishness, nor his bum leg, a memento of the war. He is—unapologetically—a sardonic, witty Jew. The Adam character narrates the story à la Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Uranowitz is a find, almost stealing the show.
Henri Baurel (Max von Essen, in a subtle, beautifully acted and sung performance) is the scion of an aristocratic manufacturing family. He harbors a desire to be a singer and has hired Adam to help put together an act. Henri, possibly a closeted homosexual, has a hidden past that comes tumbling out late in the show, explaining his chaste love for Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope from The Royal Ballet), a young ballerina who survived the war through the efforts of the Baurel family.
Henri’s parents (Veanne Cox and Scott Willis) are hidebound in their beliefs, but not hard-hearted. Both these performers manage to turn what might have been caricatures into three-dimensional people (who happen to sing and dance).
Milo Davenport (Jill Paice), unlike her counterpart in the film, is not a predatory user of young talented men. She is an American ex-patriot soaking in the idiosyncrasies of Parisian society, while also sponsoring an occasional artist and giving freely to the ballet. Ms. Paice is truly poignant under her soignée surface.
Jerry, Adam and Henri all love Lise. The complications of their love drive the plot without ever becoming soppy. How and who Lise chooses makes for a heartwarming, but quiet, ending.
The entire cast is terrific. Leanne Cope is perfection as Lise, evoking memories of Leslie Caron, but decidedly her own woman, gamine yet full of emotion. She is a find.
A good portion of the film’s glorious Gershwin score is still there, with the addition of eleven numbers not in the film plus some of Gershwin’s classical work, lovingly adapted, arranged and supervised by Rob Fisher, the founding Music Director of New York City Center Encores! series. “An American in Paris,” of course, is still an integral part of the show’s musical score, here used to accompany an abstract, but emotionally revealing ballet, unlike the film’s ballet which pretty much followed the implicit references of Gershwin’s score. “Fidgety Feet” causes an uptight art gallery crowd to romp joyfully while “Liza” becomes Jerry and Lise’s romantic mantra. Even “The Man I Love,” sung by Lise, is turned into a subtle rumination that goes from wistful to sad. “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” becomes a surprise blockbuster in the form of Henri’s deliciously over-the-top fantasy, taking him to Radio City Music Hall!
Bob Crowley’s sumptuous, seamlessly cinematic sets and character-illuminating costumes are a brilliant show in their own right, but also serve to frame and compliment the story and the characters.
This An American in Paris is an enchanting, voluptuous swirl of color, light, music and heartfelt emotions.
An American in Paris (closing on October 9, 2016)
Palace Theatre, Broadway and 47th Street, in Manhattan
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission
A brilliant revision of the beloved classic MGM Gershwin film by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon directing for the first time.