An American in Paris
London, Dominion Theatre
17 March 2017
NY interview with Christopher Wheeldon, Leanne Cope & Robert Fairchild
Gallery of pictures by Dave Morgan
Christopher Wheeldon’s production of An American in Paris, at last in London after its Broadway run, is a different show from the one I saw 13 months ago in Paris. Then, the Théatre du Chatelet, (now closed for overdue modernisation) couldn’t accommodate the elaborate scenic effects that make the present staging dazzle. Craig Lucas’s book is no longer clunky, the jokes are fine and the orchestration of George and Ira Gershwin’s lyrics and music is gloriously slick.
The story is darker and more complicated than that of the 1951 film that starred Gene Kelly and the young Leslie Caron at the start of her film career. As Wheeldon’s heroine, Lise Dassin, declares sadly to her American suitor, Jerry, ‘Life is not like your American movie’. She has to resist falling in love with him because she is duty-bound to marry Henri, the son of the Parisian bourgeois family who protected her during the war. She is Jewish, and doesn’t know what has become of her father and mother, a well-known ballerina.
Right at the start of the show, a Nazi banner with a swastika is torn down and replaced with the French Tricolour. American GIs, including Jerry Mulligan, are greeted with jubilation by the dancing crowd. He sees Lise among them as if in a vision scene, isolated in a spotlight. When he meets her again, he has been demobbed and she is working as a salesgirl in Galeries Lafayette. Leanne Cope is beyond charming as a gamine girl with a plausible French accent and a sweet singing voice. Lise is a dancer like her mother, attending ballet classes in her free time at a somewhat pretentious conservatoire.
Robert Fairchild’s Jerry just happens to be a stupendous dancer and singer, while aspiring to be an artist. Fairchild, who will return to New York City Ballet after three months in the London show, couldn’t be anything but American: he has the irrepressible bounce and brio of a Broadway musical star (as well as being an expert ballet partner). In the show, there’s a culture clash between the Parisians who survived the German occupation and the brash Americans who liberated them. The French have secrets to hide, dreading treachery everywhere. Jerry and his best friend Adam Hochberg (David Seadon-Young) simply assume they can conquer Paris by becoming instantly successful, Jerry as a painter and Adam as a composer.
They do, of course, because this is a musical comedy fantasy in which dreams come true. The production plays adroitly between the clichés of gay Paree, upbeat American confidence (‘Who could ask for anything more?’) and a wry hope that money can’t buy love – though it can buy the joyous ballet that concludes the show. The dance idiom throughout is balletic: the British cast of dancers all trained at ballet or stage dance schools. It’s entertaining to hear previously silent performers from well-known ballet companies singing their hearts out with gusto.
Lise takes her chosen career seriously, auditioning nervously for a new ballet production. Little does she know that the production will be bank-rolled by an American heiress, Milo Davenport (Zoe Rainey), who has fallen for Jerry, her protégé. He is to be the designer, and Adam the composer. Since both men are in love with Lise, they are rivals with Henri, her fiançé (Haydn Oakley). He, however, has cold feet: what he really wants is to be cabaret artiste, not a married man.
Here’s where Wheeldon’s production has to juggle with a whole set of values, which it now does far better than in its initial run in Paris. The ballet company Lise joins must be good, otherwise she’s deluded; Adam has to be a genuinely promising composer (with a bent for jazz); Jerry must be gifted enough as an artist to justify his compromising relationship with rich widow Milo. Yet the film of An American in Paris, on which the storyline is based, is convinced that optimistic American musical entertainment is the best there can be.
Thus, ‘I’ve got fidgety feet’ is a far more enjoyable number than the ghastly ballet an audience of socialites is supposed to be admiring. The travesty is explained by Henri’s mother requesting an ‘old style’, pre-war revival of ‘The Eclipse of Uranus’. (Lise is not involved.) Madame Baurel, Henri’s mother (Jane Asher) is overly keen to keep up appearances, for reasons we start to divine. Asher, though, doesn’t even hint at the character’s complexity, and her attempts at a French accent are bemusing. The role of Henri’s closet gay father (Julian Forsyth) has been reduced to a cipher, thanks to 20 minutes of cuts since the Paris premiere.
Henri realises his dream in the heart-stirring transformation scene for ‘I’ll build a stairway to Paradise’. On come the dancing girls and boys, top hats and tails, ostrich feathers and high kicks. It’s the only number in which tap puts in a guest appearance. Haydn Oakley, as an initially awkward hoofer out of his league, is adorable as Henri.
How can ballet compete with a Radio City Music Hall fantasy? Wheeldon throws everything into his American in Paris ballet to George Gershwin’s rhapsodic score: erupting sets, pointe shoes and high heels, costume changes representing different painting styles, a starring role for Lise in a yellow dress and a ‘nightmare’ pas de deux for Jerry and Lise in black. Perspectives alter, since the performance is supposed to be taking place to an audience facing us. We see the backs of the dancers until they take over the stage. Two conductors confront each other: musical supervisor Todd Ellison in the pit and Seadon-Young’s Adam on stage, standing, as he says, ‘in a hole in the ground’ to conduct his creation.
The ballet is a triumph, of course. It really is, but the show still has to have its happy ending. The bitterness of Adam and Milo, disappointed in love, is forgotten. Lise and Jerry are reconciled, strolling along the banks of the Seine under the night sky. Wheeldon and his collaborators have reclaimed the Gershwins’ music and songs for a five-star production that outshines Vincente Minnelli’s film.