The Broadway production of “An American in Paris”, begins with a transition from darkness to color. World War II has just ended, the occupation of Paris has been lifted, and the city has begun to experience a rebirth. Nazi emblems disappear and a French flag emerges, so enormous that its red, white, and blue stripes overwhelm the stage.
Barely ten minutes in, the musical – now on Broadway following its premiere in Paris – reveals its departure from the 1951 film in which the Technicolor backdrops and the charms of actor/choreographer Gene Kelly eclipse any awareness of history or reckoning with the state of Europe after the war.
Like the film, the new musical of “An American in Paris”, features Gershwin’s symphonic work of the same title (which he wrote in 1928; he didn’t live long enough to see the film) as an extended dance sequence. The musical has a gorgeous score that includes several other Gershwin songs and orchestrations. Producer Stuart Oken, music director Rob Fisher, book writer Craig Lucas, and director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon have blended the melodies with dramatic scenes so seamlessly that it appears as though the musical has always existed this way.
As a result, the creative team achieves something paradoxical and brilliant. Their craftsmanship has led to a new musical that feels classic. The show is reminiscent of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show – an idea that Oken expressed when I interviewed him for an article in The New York Jewish Week. The presence of political and cultural shifts within a turbulent country conjures Rodgers and Hammerstein shows like “The Sound of Music” and “South Pacific”. And the significance of dance and movement to propel the story brings to mind scenes from "Oklahoma!"
“An American in Paris” feels so complete as a Gershwin musical, it's astounding that it was constructed in the last handful of years. To make a live performance that honors the original film and also achieves something entirely new is a major feat in any art form. It fills the gaps without faulting the earlier work.
Filling the gaps, as it were, relies on many creative innovations. Lucas’ script conveys what the film glosses over: that Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly’s character) is struggling to put the trauma of war behind him, that Lise is a Jewish girl whose parents were killed, that Henri Baurel and his family were resistance fighters who hid Lise in their home, and that Adam, the composer, is a war veteran like Jerry whose uses humor as a healing mechanism (rather than a shtick as actor Oscar Levant does onscreen). Lucas’ book occasionally teeters into “love conquers all” saccharine, but generally his dialogue is well-written. He creates a rich story where there could have simply been lighthearted filler between songs.
Another major facet of the production is the set design by Bob Crowley. The city lights, boulevards, Sienne River, and opulent shops are vividly created with detailed backdrops and fly-in architecture. His clever use of sketch marks against a back screen to draw images of Paris is both visually alluring and narratively poignant. The sketches reflect Jerry’s avocation as a visual artist as well as a “redrawing” of Paris in the months after the war.
Christopher Wheeldon’s debut as a Broadway director and choreographer is very impressive. While his background is in the world of ballet, he proves he can build a nuanced story that balances its weight between song, dialogue, and dance. The show does feel very dance-heavy, particularly after the “American in Paris” ballet – which nears 20 minutes, but Wheeldon keeps the material fresh by alternating full company dance segments with romantic duets between Jerry and Lise.
Which brings me to the lead performer, Robert Fairchild. As Jerry, the show belongs to Fairchild who is a powerhouse of dancing ability, charisma, stage presence, and vocal ability. His physical beauty and dancer’s body only add to his list of superlatives. Leanne Cope (Lise), Max Von Essen (Henri), and Brandon Uranowitz (Adam) are impressive as well, delivering honest, empathic performances, and Veanne Cox (Mrs. Baurel) and Jill Paice (Milo Davenport) are especially good at portraying strong women whose steely demeanors mask fragile hearts. But when Fairchild is onstage, particularly when he’s dancing, I found it impossible to look elsewhere.
“An American in Paris” is well placed in the “feel-good musical” catalog of Broadway shows this season, and I have to admit that compared to other shows this year (cerebral dramas like “Disgraced”, form-shifting innovations like “An Octoroon” and complex musical works like “Fun Home” and “Hamilton”) a feel-good show can come across as a lightweight. But the creativity at work here should not be overlooked. “An American in Paris” is ultimately a story of renewal and it’s fitting how well the musical’s very form corresponds to that theme.
photo credit: Angela Sterling