London, Theatre Royal Drury Lane
27 April 2017
An American in Paris
London, Dominion Theatre
3 May 2017
NY interview with Christopher Wheeldon, Leanne Cope & Robert Fairchild
Jann Parry’s earlier reviews – Mar 2017, Dec 2014.
Gallery of pictures by Dave Morgan
Two of the hottest all-dancing musicals in London are set in trying times: 42nd Street during the American Depression years, and An American in Paris in post-war austerity. To lift the spirits of downcast audiences, dance routines are given pride of place. In both cases, the ‘book’ for the musical version has been rewritten from that of the original film: 42nd Street saved Warner Brothers in 1933 and An American in Paris, with its ballet to George Gershwin’s music, was a risky undertaking by MGM in 1951 that won six Oscars.
The basic plots are similar. Will the young heroine save the show-within-a-show and be acclaimed a star? Can the show make us forget all our worries and go home humming and tapping our feet? Of course the answer is Yes.
42nd Street is the kind of musical that A Chorus Line riffs off. Dancers auditioning for a new show, Pretty Lady, are desperate for jobs. They are willing to be worked into the ground by the director to make the opening night a success and stave off destitution. Newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse) arrives late for the audition but proves too talented to be overlooked. When the veteran star (Sheena Easton or CJ Johnson) injures her ankle, only Peggy is good enough to replace her.
The black-and-white film was the first hit for Busby Berkeley as a choreographer. The 1980 Broadway version was directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, with assistance from Mark Bramble and Randy Skinner. The latter two, Bramble as director (and co-writer) and Skinner as choreographer, were responsible for the 2001 revival on Broadway, now remounted at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Apparently it was due for the Coliseum, but when ENO pulled out, Michael Grade and Michael Linnit went ahead with Drury Lane.
Skinner’s tap-based choreography pays homage to Berkeley and Champion, with allusions to Fred Astaire and George Balanchine’s Slaughter on Fifth Avenue. The tap routines are versatile and varied, from heavy-footed hoofing for the ensemble to light-toned numbers for Peggy, her best girlfriends and virtuoso Billy (Stuart Neal), her would-be boyfriend. There’s even a Hollywood parody on pointe, with chorines costumed as tippy-toed flowers.
Skinner, who has spent his life in musicals ever since he was a hoofer himself, knows how to build each number and pace the arc of the show (an expertise that Christopher Wheeldon, director and choreographer of An American in Paris, has yet to master). There are so many bodies on stage – 43 in all – that there is scarcely room for props. Yet look what Skinner does with just a suitcase in Lullaby of Broadway, adding in yet more and more dancers on different levels of the set. All he needs for Keep Young and Beautiful is 24 pairs of well-toned legs and an overhead mirror. And for the finale, a staircase whose steps light up under the pounding of all those dancing feet.
The British cast, meticulously drilled, shine as individuals as well as chorus clones. Clare Halse is indeed a star as Peggy, with a sweet smile and relaxed upper body, even as her percussive feet spell out intricate rhythms. She sings a touching duet with the injured leading lady – ‘Go out there and be so swell that you’ll make me hate you’ – who isn’t called upon to dance. Actor-singer Tom Lister as Julian Marsh, the show-within-a show’s director, is compelling as the Diaghilev figure (or Boris Lermontov in The Red Shoes). Julian is the last, lonely figure on stage at the end, until the entire cast returns for a chorus line curtain call. Impossible not to succumb.
Where 42nd Street relies on the power of tap, An American in Paris is ballet-based, with nods to different genres of dance theatre. Even the sets and props are choreographed, shifted by the performers. Leanne Cope, as leading lady Lise Dassin, is a former Royal Ballet dancer and Robert Fairchild as the hero, Jerry Mulligan, is due to return to New York City Ballet next month. However, his English alternate, Ashley Day, who will take over full-time from 19 June, is a musical theatre ‘triple threat’, not a ballet dancer. I caught up with his performance at a matinee, with the rest of the cast unchanged.
Day fits the role of the naïve American ex-GI more plausibly than the more mature-looking Fairchild. With a flashing white smile and boyish stage personality, Day is engagingly gauche – a blundering puppy who wouldn’t understand the delicatesses of post-war Parisian society. He breaks down Lise’s initial reserve by persuading her to role-play as carefree Liza, dancing with a joy she can’t repress. Cope evidently trusts him as a partner in their pas de deux, including the ‘nightmare’ one in the ballet-within-a-ballet near the end. He can certainly dance as well as act, though his show-off numbers aren’t quite as spectacular as Fairchild’s.
Day holds the show together through his appealing innocence as Jerry (and the strength of his singing). Jerry’s dodgy relationship with an older woman, Milo Davenport (glamorous Zoe Rainey), who intends to be his patron and lover, is less disturbing as a result. There are so many threads to the story line and so much dancing that Wheeldon’s production sags, at nearly three hours, in a way that 42nd Street never does. Both raise the spirits (as does Half a Sixpence, with its young star Charlie Kemp). How wonderful that Britain can field so many excellent, versatile dancers for musicals and ballets.