Does Broadway have a case of French fever? Hot on the heels of Gigi comes An American in Paris, yet another stage adaptation of a City of Light-set movie musical, an MGM-manufactured, misty-eyed romance/travelogue that could practically sell transatlantic tickets on looks alone. Air France should be pushing vacation packages at intermission.
You needn’t be a Francophile to appreciate Paris, which just opened at the Palace Theatre, but a healthy interest in dance won’t hurt. The creators have zeroed in on the Oscar-winning 1951 film’s most distinguishing feature—the choreography—handing the show’s reins to contemporary ballet wunderkind Christopher Wheeldon. From the opening montage—which finds American GI-turned-wannabe artist Jerry Mulligan (New York City Ballet principal Robert Fairchild, blessed with natural charisma and boy band-perfect hair) gliding through the streets of post-WWII Paris to the strains of George Gershwin’s jazzy “Concerto in F”—to the titular 13-minute, 45-second dance, there hasn’t been this much traditional ballet on Broadway since Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lakein 1998. And yet…would that there were more!
Any one of Wheeldon’s dances—particularly those for Jerry and his at-first-sight true love, the mysterious Lise (the Royal Ballet’s Leanne Cope, a divine dancer who looks a little shell-shocked when she’s not en pointe—packs more content, smarts, and finesse than practically all the book scenes put together. In one glorious scene-shifting ballet, we see, among other things: Jerry and his patroness/sugar mama Milo (Jill Paice) hobnobbing with art snobs; Lise reluctantly falling for Jerry as they romp around the banks of the Seine; Lise’s intended, Henri (Max von Essen), polishing his creaky cabaret act; Jerry’s pal Adam (Brandon Uranowitz) pining for Lise as she rehearses a ballet he’s composing and Jerry’s designing.
When you can convey so much through pure physical expression—with a slight assist from Gershwin’s “Second Rhapsody” and “Cuban Overture”—words seem somehow insufficient. And Craig Lucas’ plodding, paint-by-numbers-style script is, regrettably, especially insufficient. Additional cliché characters—Henri’s humorless parents (Scott Willis and Veanne Cox), for instance—serve no purpose, and shoehorning most of the main characters, including Lise, into a dance-related plot (to, what, justify the big second-act ballet?) feels like a cop-out. If the audience can accept the characters busting out Gershwin standards like “’S Wonderful” and “I Got Rhythm”, we can buy regular dance breaks—even a 14-minute interval involving virtually the entire company draped in Bob Crowley’s Mondrian-esque primary-color costumes.
The beauty of An American in Paris—the movie—is that it’s a beautiful fantasy: a sun-drenched, champagne-soaked, soufflé-light confection that looks even better than it sounds. (And it sounds pretty good thanks to George and Ira’s tunes and Alan Jay Lerner’s quip-filled screenplay. Jerry to Milo: “That’s quite a dress you almost have on. What holds it up?” Milo: “Modesty.”) It’s impossible to watch it without feeling an emotional pull toward Vincente Minnelli’s postcard-perfect mid-20th-century Paris, even if it was almost entirely created on a soundstage.
The Broadway production understands that allur e—theoretically. The show had its out-of-town tryout at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, after all. (Talk about the beginning of a brilliant marketing campaign!) Crowley creates as stunning a vision of the city as you can imagine, bathed in a stunning array of blues, using jigsaw-like set pieces—combined with incredible projections by 59 Productions—to represent any number of places in war-ravaged Paris. And Wheeldon’s ballets are positively transporting. If only the team had followed lyricist Ira Gershwin’s advice—as Milo herself sings: “Dance whenever you can!” B-