BWW Review: AN AMERICAN IN PARIS opens at The Memphis Orpheum
Because the story centers on Ballet, which I'm not qualified to critique, I brought along Dmitri Roudnev, former Bolshoi soloist and current Ballet Master. I was glad he was there because although the show was a feast for my eyes, it never touched my heart. Whenever this happens, and I know I have to write a review, I feel unsettled. I'm not a writer who delights in crafting zingers to pan performers--quite to the contrary.
When effusive praise travels from my heart to my pen, I feel I have given the artist something tangible in return for the pleasure and inspiration they have given me, and that, perhaps, the gossamer of the Arts Community has been reinforced by one more minute thread.
When it comes to Ballet, Dmitri is a formidable expert, but he is not a caustic critic. He was once my daughter's teacher, and I have seen his empathy for dancers up close. This production left him cold as well.
We left the Orpheum and had an in-depth discussion to pinpoint the source of our reactions to the show. We wanted to make sure we were being fair. Beyond Dmitri's specialized insight that the non-Ballet dance numbers were superior to the Ballet performances in both technique and choreography, (in other words, he would have wanted better Ballet), our overall perceptions were aligned. Here they are, unvarnished:
We both agreed that the show was visually beautiful beyond words. Bob Crowley, who won a Tony for Scenic Design on this show is also the man behind a vast array of costumes that are somehow both sumptuous and natural looking. His execution of the many required transitions are ingenious. His color palettes are exquisitely Parisian - more reminiscent of watercolor than of the Technicolor from the original 1952 film. Projections designed by 59 Productions add spellbinding and innovative visual impact to carefully chosen scenes.
The performers, we agreed, deserve to be commended simply for putting on a three-hour Tour De Force night after night. I have never seen a harder working cast. However, we came to the conclusion that burdening those performers with a half-baked plot and insistent, jam-packed dazzle was the root of the problem with the show.
The classic film, by the same title, was a cinematic fantasy about the triumph of love and art in a world healing from war. It was a musical starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron and contained many of the same elements as the 2015 stage adaptation, but it wasn't about dance.
This stage production is a jukebox musical that incorporates Ballet into the plot.
This forced focus on Ballet created a challenge for the show the same way musicianship creates a challenge for many other jukebox musicals. In these situations, casting directors have to find appropriate physical types who can pass muster in several disciplines. Mastering three separate art forms at a virtuosos level is impossible, and so in order to cast the show, the technical bar must be lowered. In performance, the only things that can compensate for technique--and are sometimes more important to an audience --are heart and charisma.
However, this show has too many moving parts and too much momentum to let anyone breathe, let alone feel deeply, or indulge in bit of inspired spontaneity. It has no great monologue, truly compelling dialogue or captivating intrigue.
When every number is a showstopper, there is no showstopper. When George and Ira Gershwin's marvelous music is parsed into peculiar vocal arrangements for the sake of shoehorning another song into a flimsy plot line, there is no room for a poignant solo. When actors are hurtled through a kaleidoscope at channel surfing speed, the revolving door spins so quickly that muse can't enter. No performer can be at their best when their primary objective is getting through the show. That's why I'm not writing about individual performances.
I believe Broadway producers need to reacquaint themselves with their market (primarily the Tourist Trade and Middle America), stop pandering to an abstract concept of the lowest common denominator, and refuse to pussyfoot around issues with the pretense of addressing them. This show hints at the Holocaust, Anti-Semitism, and Homosexual Angst, but it never dares scratch the surface. It is billed as a love story, yet every statement about love is a tired cliché. Some of the characters have a comic book quality, and humor seldom goes beyond the sitcom level one-liner. Perhaps if the show had been pared down and didn't take itself so seriously, the performers might have found some magic moments and contagious fun to bring to the stage and there would have been a better human connection.
An audience may look like a field of cabbages from the vantage point of the stage, but its presence and energy are the only reason actors devote their careers to the theatre instead of the camera. Ticket holders bring more than money, they bring their hearts, minds and souls. They have an innate desire to meet the storytellers halfway and allow their own imaginations and emotional memories to engage. They can't have that experience when they are being barraged.
Moreover, an audience can sense when performers are too pressured to get into the transcendent state where inspired performances emerge. People go to Cirque du Soleil for a spectacle. They come to the theatre for a story. A story that will help them understand their own lives and visit the places in their hearts and minds that their everyday world may not lead them to explore.
I suspect the demands of this production required the director to be so focused on the macro that the micro was lost. The foreign accents felt stagey, jealousy and anger never approached the boiling point, and the love scenes were devoid of the tender sexiness that connects Man and Woman. Actor Delvyn Brown once said, "There is no good acting or bad acting. There is simply believe it or not." This makes sense. We cannot believe in something that feels calculated, commercialized and contrived.
Ironic that the final curtain falls with a chorus of "Who Could Ask for Anything More?"
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS plays at the Orpheum through October 29th. To purchase tickets, click here.