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An American in Paris

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 12, 2015

An American in Paris A New Musical. Music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin. Book by Craig Lucas. Inspired by the Motion Picture. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeledon. Musical score adapted, arranged and supervised by Rob Fisher. Set and costume design by Bob Crowley. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Jon Weston. Projection design by 59 Productions. Orchestrations - Christopher Austin. Cast: Robert Fairchild, Leanne Cope, Veanne Cox, Jill Paice, Brandon Uranowitz, Max von Essen, Caitlin Abraham, Will Burton, Attila Joey Csiki, Michael Cusumano, Taeler Cyrus, Ashlee Dupré, Rebecca Eichenberger, Sara Esty, Laura Feig, Jennie Ford, Kurt Froman, Heather Lang, Dustin Layton, Nathan Madden, Gia Mongell, Candy Olsen, Rebecca Riker, Adam Rogers, Sam Rogers, Shannon Rugani, Garen Scribner, Sam Strasfeld, Sarrah Strimel, Carlie Sutton, Allison Walsh, Scott Willis, Victor J. Wisehart.
Theatre: Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway between 46th and 47th Streets
Schedule: Tues 7:00 pm, Wed 2:00 pm, Th 7:00 pm, Th 8:00 pm, Fri 8:00 pm, Sat 2:00 pm, Sat 8:00 pm, Sun 3:00 pm.
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild
Photo by Angela Sterling

Even when it's drenched in the unmistakable light of day, the city is astonishingly dreamlike. The buildings, all washed in grey, rise at impossible angles. The millions of lights adorning them twinkle until they're indistinguishable from the stars that dot the infinite blue-black sky behind them. And the people do not walk as we do: They float and swirl, often at half time, before exploding into piercing shapes and sumptuous lines that seem to become the squares, lanes, and byways they inhabit it. There can be no doubt that this is no real place.

Yet as devised by director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon for the new musical An American in Paris, which just opened at the Palace, such impressions are as essential to the character of the titular city as pastries and the Eiffel Tower. So when Wheeldon's fantasy collides with the harsh realities of life in Paris just after World War II, the result is a view of time, place, obligation, and love that runs far deeper than either Craig Lucas's book or (yes) the George and Ira Gershwin songs could ever manage on their own.

This theatrical alchemy cannot salve all the ills of an evening that has been adapted, smartly if not always smoothly, from Vincente Minnelli's 1951 Gene Kelly–starring film. But it does set An American in Paris apart from the pack, and distinguish it as a classic, adult dance musical of the kind we rarely see freshly minted today. Wheeldon is not a stranger to Broadway—he provided the memorable, noir-infused dances for the 2002 musical Sweet Smell of Success—but his work here, probing into the life of both the city and the people who live there almost entirely through movement, suggests a mature theatrical artist who shouldn't stay away so long next time.

True, Lucas has significantly amped up the movie's story. He's moved the action back to immediately post-War, keeping tensions raw between the three friends—Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild), Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz), and Henri Baurel (Max von Essen)—whose intermingling artistic and romantic ambitions in the City of Lights form the basis for the plot. And he's refashioned and dug deeper into many of the key relationships, particularly respecting Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope), the fetching young woman each of the men falls for.

Robert Fairchild, Brandon Uranowitz, Max von Essen, and the cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Wheeldon translates this compellingly into dance from the first moments of the show. To the strains of the aggressively urban “Concerto in F” (the 18-piece orchestra sounds excellent playing Christopher Austin's orchestrations and Sam Davis's dance arrangements under Brad Haak's baton), we experience Jerry's increasing disaffection as he attempts to make Paris his home after the other GIs return to the U.S. He's at once captivated and rebuffed by the city, adrift in its whirl but trampled by its indifference, with only Lise—whom he keeps randomly encountering—centering his vision of a choice well made.

We soon learn that Lise is an aspiring dancer, and her audition catches the eye of not just composer Adam but also the American art patron, Milo Davenport (Jill Paice), who decides to sponsor a ballet with Lise's footwork, Adam's music, and Jerry's designs. This sets up plenty of additional conflicts, which manifest themselves in another lengthy dance at the end of the first act (against “Second Rhapsody” and “Cuban Overture”) and are not fully resolved until the eponymous ballet that serves as Act II's climax.

Because Wheeldon is such a keen visual storyteller, and Lucas so nicely upped the stakes on the film's well-intentioned cues, the gradual march to that point is immensely satisfying. They receive expert help from Bob Crowley's excellent sets and costumes, and 59 Productions' projections, which use creamy period art styles to highlight both the earthbound and horizon-sweeping aspects of Paris without overwhelming; and it's all gorgeously illuminated by lighting designer Natasha Katz, with a heavy hint of sadness.

Just as superb at fulfilling their own duties are the performers. Fairchild and Cope are wondrous dancers: lithe, erotic, and humorous by turns, but forever captivating at masterfully revealing their characters' inner souls via the way they move (and, sometimes, don't). Their singing voices and line readings aren't quite at the same level, though in each case they're handily above average. Paice and von Essen bring resplendent vocals to their roles, but play a bit broad; Veanne Cox and Scott Willis don't sing at all as Henri's disapproving parents, but deliver richly complex portrayals of two people finding their feet after immense tragedy. Uranowitz, though fine, does not quite shine in any one area.

So where does An American in Paris falter? Oddly, it's with the songs. The movie was more of a lark, and thus could make appropriate use of a frothy Gershwin catalog. But Wheeldon and Lucas have turned out something so thoughtful, so serious, that too often, even as cannily adapted and arranged by Rob Fisher, most of the numbers—even those from the film—feel like intrusions. None is worse than “Fidgety Feet,” crammed with a complete lack of care and sense into an arbitrary spot in Act II, but when even holdovers from the film (“I Got Rhythm,” “'S Wonderful,” “I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise”) scream out to not be there, what chance do the likes of “The Man I Love,” “I've Got Beginner's Luck,” and “Shall We Dance” have?

Though the overall effect is less overtly mercantile than was true of Broadway's last Gershwin hodge-podge (Nice Work If You Can Get It, in 2012), it still falls far short of more adventurous, organic efforts, like 1992's Crazy for You. The only songs that effortlessly connect emotionally and narratively are “But Not For Me” and “They Can't Take That Away From Me,” in which the men face the loss of the only woman they think can make their worlds turn. Simple, unadorned heartbreak is, sadly, as timeless as it gets.

But if An American in Paris fails as an integrated musical, it soars as choreography, and ought to be seen, admired, and appreciated as such—even more than the current Broadway revival of On the Town (which is itself no slouch). By marshaling dance as few others have on Broadway in recent memory, Wheeldon has provided us a jolting reminder of the incomparable, incalculable power of dance to speak of our deepest longings and agonies when words and even lyrics cannot.

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