Review: AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, Dominion Theatre

By: Mar. 21, 2017
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It's 1945, and Paris is shakily emerging from Nazi occupation - celebrating, yes, with soldiers returning and families reuniting, but also confronting collaborators in their midst and post-war deprivation. Amidst this turmoil, two future lovers meet: an encounter of seismic power.

All of that is conveyed, with fervent articulacy, in director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's balletic prologue, set to George and Ira Gershwin's "Concerto in F", and whenever dance is the primary narrative language, this musical theatre rendition - which premiered in Paris in 2014 and subsequently played Broadway - is simply 's wonderful.

There is also, however, an intrusive book from Craig Lucas. While Lucas does well to build on Alan Jay Lerner's paper-thin screenplay for Vincente Minnelli's iconic 1951 film, creating a stronger theatrical structure and adding period-specific elements like haunting memories for former GI Jerry and a French Resistance subplot, he's unable to leave anything in the subtext. With psychological wounds this fresh, would people really discuss their experiences so bluntly and at such length? It's a conspicuously anachronistic approach, and the laboured plotting results in clunky exchanges.

Unnecessary, too, when such themes are so well expressed by Wheeldon's textured movement. A raucous rendition of "I Got Rhythm", in the bohemian cafe where aspiring artist Jerry, composer Adam and cabaret singer Henri meet, is interrupted by a power cut. There's a collective intake of breath, a tangible memory of horror, and then, one by one, matches are struck, candles lit, the rhythmic percussion of tapping feet begins again, and collective recovery blossoms into life-affirming joy. It's an eloquent encapsulation of the City of Light emerging from the dark.

One strong textual change is making the universally adored heroine (the show's subtitle might as well be "Everyone Loves Lise!") a dancer, plucked from obscurity to star in a new ballet. That foregrounds the relationship between art and romance: Adam is inspired to write music for her, fiancé Henri's career path threatens to conflict with Lise's, and Jerry - who winds up as set designer - is enthralled by the dancer at work.

There's also thought-provoking, and decidedly meta, discussion of whether art should be escapist or should illustrate the real world. This American in Paris, despite its additions, tends towards the former, evoking not just the Forties but the MGM Golden Age and a ravishing dream state. Certainly, the idea of finding solace in art during hard times feels all too relevant, but the show itself works best as a beautiful means of escape.

It's essentially a Gershwin jukebox musical, with extra songs added - mostly smoothly, occasionally with awkward shoehorning: "Liza" is justified by Jerry deciding to rechristen Lise (because nothing says love like someone wilfully changing your name). But with music this swoon-worthy, it's hard to mind, and there are some smart choices: "'S Wonderful" becomes an ironic trio, as three friends unknowingly sigh over the same girl; a desolate reprise of "Shall We Dance?" blends with "Not For Me" in a paean to unrequited love.

Wheeldon's decision to cast two dancers in the leads is inspired. Robert Fairchild, a principal with New York City Ballet, is a revelatory showman, sharing Gene Kelly's combination of muscular power and soaring grace (and facility with an umbrella). His Jerry is a brash, eager suitor, occasionally overbearing, but winningly open-hearted. Add in matinee idol good looks and crooning vocals, and Fairchild is the consummate leading man.

As Lise, the Royal Ballet's Leanne Cope is less wide-eyed than Leslie Caron, but there's still a frustrating tendency to rob her of agency: she's the enigmatic object onto which everyone else projects. If too often rendered passive by the story, and pleasant but a tad unpowered in the songs, Cope seizes control when unleashed by Wheeldon's movement. In the climactic performance, here abstract, expressionistic jazz, Cope is sharp, witty, knowing and utterly self-possessed. Her airborne duet with Fairchild is electrifying, Lise passionately evoking the man she loves in the milieu she undoubtedly rules.

David Seadon-Young is affecting as the wounded Jewish composer, our wry narrator accustomed to adversity, and Haydn Oakley's closeted singer bursts gloriously into life with giddy Radio City fantasy "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise". Jane Asher is slightly pantomimic as Henri's snooty, overbearing mother - and not entirely convincing in either French accent or dancing - but does up the strong female quota, while Zoe Rainey is wonderfully vivacious as the glamorous American heiress who sponsors and seduces Jerry.

Rob Fisher's arrangements are gorgeously realised by an exuberant orchestra, and Bob Crowley, with projections from 59 Productions and lighting by Natasha Katz, ensures the visuals are just are splendid. We're whisked from the banks of the Seine to a ballet studio, busy street or masked ball in mere moments, and it's a distinctly artistic palette: buildings sketched in chalk, hedonistic dancing backed by Mondrian-esque vivid colour blocking. Plotting missteps are easily forgiven in a production of such rhapsodic, transcendent grace.

An American in Paris at Dominion Theatre until 30 September

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton