An American in Paris
Dominion Theatre, London
Music and Lyrics by George & Ira Gershwin; book by Craig Lucas
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
This much anticipated stage version of the great Gene Kelly MGM musical has finally made it to London. It is if anything even more exquisite than the film and crowned with two star performances.
It was also, curiously, the first jukebox musical, as the surviving Gershwin brother, Ira, worked with Kelly to interpolate some of their hit songs into the film. Over 60 years later, Christopher Wheeldon, a gifted luminary from the Royal Ballet and the New York City Ballet, was engaged to recreate the project for the stage and did so appropriately enough in Paris. That soon transferred to Broadway where it wowed audiences and won 4 Tony awards.
With Wheeldon’s involvement we would expect the dancing to be great but what we get is a most delicious fusion of state-of-the-art musical theatre making with a standard of company dancing you wouldn’t usually see outside of ballet companies.
But can they sing? I hear you ask. The answer is Yes. The two leads, both ballet stars, not only possess beautiful voices, to honour these great Gershwin songs, but they can act too. Robert Fairchild, ex New York City Ballet, has the looks of Don Draper and moves like Baryshnikov and is perfectly cast as Jerry Mulligan, the cocky GI who remains behind after the War to try his luck as an artist in the City of Light.
Leanne Cope brings decades of Royal Ballet finesse (born in 1983, she started at the Royal Ballet school aged 11) to the role of Lise the shopgirl-cum-ballerina he falls for and she matches Fairchild for exemplary classical technique fused with an ability to really communicate with an audience. She also has the acting chops to elevate Lise to more than just an ingénue role.
The dance ensemble are pure bliss and the supporting cast is all solid. Jane Asher re-defines hauteur in a battleaxe part while Zoë Rainey is perhaps too affable in the thankless role of the American society doyenne Milo.
The original story was wafer thin and the film relied perhaps too much on Kelly’s GI Joe shtick, something which wouldn’t pass muster today. Wheeldon and writer Craig Lucas have however introduced a more sombre tone to it all which gives the central romance more heft without weighing it down. They’ve moved it back 5 years to immediately after the liberation of Paris, when this was still a city of breadlines and lynch mobs and where the sun was only slowly emerging.
Bob Crowley’s designs and Natasha Katz’s lighting (both won Tonys) are simply ravishing. Whether it’s costumes wittily referencing Mondrian or the use of gauzy Daumier mirrors or just a vast, simple, blue backdrop, the visuals are feast for the eye. Working with 59 Productions’ projections they create shimmering poetic renderings of boulevards and cafes. The speed that the projections lend the piece mean the pace never sags and Wheeldon’s scene transitions are as poetic as his dance steps.