The new Broadway musical An American in Paris is officially “inspired by” rather than “adapted from” Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 film of the same name, which won six Academy Awards, including the Best Picture Oscar, and did so with very little story. The movie was mostly a vehicle for Gene Kelly’s dancing and choreography, George Gershwin’s music with Ira Gershwin’s lyrics, and Leslie Caron at the peak of her gaminehood – all wonderful things for a fantasy-world film, but not enough meat for a Broadway musical.
So the taking of many liberties for the new stage version by Craig Lucas (book), Christopher Wheeldon (direction and choreography), and a team of top-notch collaborators is a good thing. Lucas’s fleshed-out story isn’t really compelling, or even fully satisfying. But it’s serviceable enough to support the extravagant musical now at the Palace Theatre on Broadway, which has so much else to recommend it.
At the end of World War II, the young veteran and aspiring artist Jerry Mulligan (the Gene Kelly role) falls in love with the city of Paris, where he also has his eye on a charming young woman named Lise, so he tears up his ticket back to the States. First-time director Wheeldon, who made his name with the Royal Ballet but is a newcomer to Broadway and indeed to the theatrical stage, has cast two charismatic ballet dancers in these lead roles.
Though Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope are both charismatic principal dancers, it was a risky gamble that they would have what it takes for Broadway. After some reported weaknesses in the production during early previews, the bet has paid off. Neither Fairchild nor Cope has a big voice, but both come through OK or better, Cope’s vocals in particular gleaming with character and pathos, and both performers appealing and fully energized. They dance beautifully, both separately and together, especially in the climactic modernistic ballet “An American in Paris.” Through sheer effort of will they build chemistry through dance even more than through song and dialogue.
The show deepens the tale with a Holocaust backstory for Lise, and with amusing family dynamics for Henri, a wealthy young aspiring entertainer and Jerry’s main rival for Lise’s affections. The composer Adam, played by Oscar Levant in the movie and here made a young Jewish-American expatriate, in this version also pines for Lise. The story even broaches sexual orientation, something that wouldn’t have been touched in a Hollywood movie-musical in 1951.
Max Von Essen brings a real Broadway voice and a nice mix of comedy and bravado to Henri. Brandon Uranowitz puts just enough Woody Allen nebbishness into his sympathetic Adam. Veanne Cox gives Henri’s uptight mother a comic kick, creating some of the show’s funniest moments, and Jill Paice is a sharp and sexy Milo.
Indeed the whole company is excellent. But a few of the dance sequences felt low-energy – not that they weren’t performed smoothly, they just didn’t fill me with the delight I want from Broadway dance numbers.
Others scored, including and especially the long “An American in Paris” ballet, which lived up to my expectations for a show taking inspiration from Gene Kelly.
Throughout the show, spectacular sets and projections combine to create nightclubs, street scenes, the Seine, a flipped-around concert hall, and so on. The backdrops themselves seem to dance with the actors and flats that zip around the stage, painting (and I use the word “painting” intentionally) a fantastical but recognizable postwar Paris of celebration and “what now?” uncertainty.
There’s no uncertainty about the music. On the Town may have a bigger orchestra a few blocks away, but this ensemble, led by Todd Ellison in Christopher Austin’s commanding orchestrations, matches it in vigor and feeling for the material. If it’s a coincidence that two shows set in the 1940s with jazz-influenced music and featuring a trio of young men in a strange land are on Broadway at the same time, it’s a happy one for audiences. It also seems to show a renewed interest in the music of a period when composers had more fertile ground in which to cultivate their art than composers typically do today.
An American in Paris knits great songs like “The Man I Love,” “‘S Wonderful,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” clever novelties like “Fidgety Feet,” and foundational works of the Jazz Age (“I Got Rhythm,” Gershwin’s “Preludes”) into a grand unified entertainment. In so doing it proves a few things:
Broadway and the ballet are friends.
Given a fresh polish, great music of the past really is timeless.
And in an era when a Broadway musical spun out of new material is usually too risky even for the phalanxes of producers needed to mount a production this size, there’s adaptable stuff still out there. If we can’t have a new George Gershwin or Leonard Bernstein right now, the originals can still energize today’s biggest stage talents and please finicky audiences.