Though incomparably better than the joyless tryout I saw at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris a couple years ago, the stage adaptation of An American in Paris, with a score by George and Ira Gershwin, still falls short of classic status. It would have been agreeable to report that it approximates the exuberance and light-heartedness of the celebrated 1951 MGM film on which it’s based, but that’s not the case. Deliberately so.
Right from its inception it was never the intention of director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and playwright Craig Lucas simply to transfer the award-winning musical to the stage in the manner of the recent Singin’ in the Rain. Their aim was to provide extra gravitas and heft to Alan Jay Lerner’s original boy-meets-girl screenplay. This they have done but with mixed results.
The setting is Paris in 1945. The war is over but not its immediate aftermath. The heroine Lise (Leanne Cope) is a Jewess who works in the perfume department at the Gallery Lafayette and whose young life has been scarred by the war. She has lost touch with her parents (her mother was a famous ballerina), both assumed to be victims of the Holocaust, and has been reared by an aristocratic Parisian family whose son Henri (Haydn Oakley), a would-be nightclub singer, his mother (Jane Asher) expects him to marry. She also happens to be an aspiring ballerina.
Enter Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild), an ex-soldier and talented painter who accidentally bumps into Lise twice on his first day in liberated Paris and is instantly smitten. So is Adam (David Seadon Young), a war-wounded American bar tender-cum-would-be-composer Jerry befriends.
The idea of Lerner’s rather flimsy narrative being given a boost by its war-torn background and saddling Lise with three suitors may have sounded good as a concept, but it fails to convince dramatically. Adam’s ardour for her is little more than a contrived plot devise. It is hinted every now and then that Henri’s sexual proclivities “may extend beyond the fairer sex,” or words to that effect. Had Lucas’ book been less guarded about Henri’s gayness, "The Man I Love" could easily have been shoehorned into an appropriate spot in a show already bursting with Gershwin evergreens.
As in the original film, a subplot finds Jerry being wooed by Milo Davenport (Zoe Rainey), a wealthy American patron of the arts whose money conveniently sponsors a new ballet that will feature unknown Lise as its star, unknown Adam as the composer and unknown Jerry as the designer. If you can swallow that, you’ll swallow anything.
The best way to enjoy this new version of An American in Paris is to jettison the buttressed plot and concentrate instead on Fairchild’s glorious turn as both dancer and singer (a rare combination), Cope’s engaging and appealing Lise, and a supporting company who do their best to flesh out the two-dimensionality of the characters they play.
The undoubted heroes of the evening, though, are Wheeldon, whose choreography is an expert blend of classical ballet and Broadway pizzazz, and designer Bob Crowley, whose evocative projections of Paris – from the Seine, Montparnasse, the Rue de la Paix to the Eiffel Tower and every other familiar tourist high spot that declares the city’s perennial beauty and allure – are a colourful eyeful. They keep a rather static narrative on the move, and although the climactic ballet set against Mondrian-like backdrops cannot equal, in scope or invention, the 18-minute ballet that ends the famous Vincente Minnelli film version, it offers the best dancing on show.
Less successful is "I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise," sung by Henri in a small Montmartre nightclub, which, in his mind’s eye morphs into a production number at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Its striking art deco set is adorned with the type of feather-clad chorus girls you might see in a glitzy Vegas revue, but isn’t it perverse to do a number specifically featuring a stairway without showing a single stair? Go figure.