The weakness in this four-time Tony Award-winning production of An American in Paris is its star, Robert Fairchild – the much celebrated American dancer who has taken time out from his normal job as Principle at the New York City Ballet to play Jerry Mulligan, the GI artist in post-war Paris played by Gene Kelly in the 1951 Oscar-winning movie.
Fairchild could fairly be described as embodying the athleticism of Kelly and the grace of Fred Astaire. So if you’re wondering how all this makes the utterly mesmerising hoofer the Achilles heel of this first-ever stage adaptation of the much-loved yet forgettable film, it’s because he may be the best of many reasons to see this show but he is only going to be in it for the first three months of its intended London run. Still, if you catch him before he returns to New York you’re in for the best individual dancing performance I have seen.
It says a lot for his British, former Royal Ballet co-star Leanne Cope (who stays on after Fairchild departs) that her dancing lives with ease alongside Fairchild’s. In fact, as Lise, the French girl Jerry falls for, it is Cope more than Fairchild who provides the sexual charge when they share the stage. Dark, small and demure, there is a passionate yet suppressed sexuality about her – that is until her and Fairchild’s standout moment. This is the show’s equivalent of the Kelly-choreographed and -performed ballet sequence that propelled the film into the category of a cinematic groundbreaker.
For anyone who was left cold by the film’s oddly undeveloped characters, who live in an even more oddly gay Paree (considering it has been under brutal occupation), director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has slain cows that the less courageous may have thought sacred. For a start, he has given book writer Craig Lucas license to make sense of the original's deeply lacking plot. The story is no longer set in 1950, but in 1945 just after Paris was liberated. It’s a place where Nazi collaborators are still being hounded by mobs. Lise in particular has been given a backstory and a reason for living with the strangely unsuited song-and-dance man Henri (Haydn Oakley), for whom she feels more a sense of duty than love. The newly written reason is that she’s Jewish and was in hiding with Henri and his aristocratic family during the war. Meanwhile the composer character (now more than ever a George Gershwin figure, played here by David Season-Young) is also Jewish. There are other changes too, all of them good.
But plot is not what we are here for. As with Shakespeare you need only just enough logic to evoke the right emotion, and with that achieved the way is clear to enjoy this production’s other elements – Gershwin’s music, Bob Crowley’s outstanding design and of course, the dancing.
For the exterior scenes, Crowley evokes the French capital’s mansions and boulevards with flats of scenery that land like giant spaceships. They are alive with swirling animated pencil lines as if they have been lifted directly from Jerry’s sketchbook.
It’s perhaps worth forgetting that in 1951 the film was, in essence, probably the first jukebox musical, made nearly two and a half decades after Gershwin’s An American Paris composition was first heard in 1928, and 15 years after he died of a brain tumour. "They Can’t Take that Away from Me" and "I Got Rhythm" are a delight, but it feels as if the songs were for hire rather than expressions of narrative. Not that it matters much. More important is that life has been breathed into a film that in 1950 may have been a good idea at the time but that had grown stale and gathered dust. Now it is one of the most life-enhancing musicals around. And if you’re quick enough, to see Fairchild in full flight is to witness nothing less than the making of musical theatre history.