With the world back in love with the classic musical thanks to La La Land, the arrival of the 2015 Broadway Production of An American in Paris couldn’t be more timely. After a brief stint in Paris and rave reviews on Broadway, this much anticipated revival, based on the 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, has its press night at the Dominion Theatre tomorrow. But this isn’t the standard all-singing all-dancing musical you might expect, and while there are a number of memorable songs, this is really a dance and classical music piece, with choreography drawn from ballet rather than modern dance and tap. But more than that, this tale of soldiers and restoration is couched in the consequences of conflict and its effect on the arts – a romantic fantasy very much grounded in the aftermath of World War Two.
Demobilised in 1945, Jerry decides not to return to America with his colleagues and to pursue his career as a modernist painter in Paris, where he unexpectedly meets Lise after rescuing her from a pushy crowd. He falls instantly in love with her but she disappears into the night and instead Jerry becomes involved with fellow American Milo, who offers to help him promote his work to local gallery owners and as a set designer at the ballet. Meanwhile Lise has also caught the attention of pianist Adam who is charmed when she becomes principal ballerina in a work he is composing but Lise is engaged to Henri whose mother is patron of the ballet. When Henri, Adam and Jerry become friends and with the ballet premiere approaching, how soon before they realise they’re all in love with the same girl and who will win her?
Most musicals open with some big all-cast number with another either side of the interval and a rouser to send people home at the end. But An American in Paris has a more muted trajectory, opening with only a piano on a dark stage because this is one man’s memory, the story of Adam reflecting back many years later on what appears to be a lost love affair, a happier time not just for him personally but for the whole of France as it emerged from occupation. That piano becomes a key focal point throughout the show moved skilfully around the stage, identifying times when the audience is privy to Adam’s direct memories. But, as it’s clear from the start that we’re seeing things from his point of view, crucially the piano’s absence implies events between other characters that he has imagined – such as any private encounter between Jerry and Lise – which adds to, and partially explains, the heightened fantasy element of the sections where Adam is not present.
In many ways this is an intimate show, concerned with the relationships and developing affections among a small group of artists in post-war Paris, and while this bigger picture is an underlying theme it’s really the smaller human interaction that is the focus. With that in mind, the size of the Dominion Theatre stage is frequently a problem with even the largest dance numbers looking a little swamped amidst the acres of empty space, although surprisingly that’s not always the case with the duets. That aside, the dancing is beautifully choreographed by Director Christopher Wheeldon, perfectly capturing the lyricism and romance of Gershwin’s score mixing fun upbeat numbers such as I’ve Got Rhythm set in a local café during a power cut, with the extraordinary I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck in the department store where Lise works as three sets of display cabinets whirl around the stage allowing Jerry to hop between them as dancers parade and spin in the latest ‘new look’ fashions creating the sense of the old counter-style service in a busy store as well as the disruption Jerry causes by turning up out of the blue. As a set-piece its elaborate glamour is very much in line with things like the Ascot race from My Fair Lady and Beautiful Girl from Singing in the Rain.
But Wheeldon also brings genuine tenderness and emotion to Jerry and Lise’s interactions, demonstrating their growing connection and the somewhat wistful nature of their romance as they meet in secret by the Seine. He christens her ‘Liza’, encouraging her to take more risks and their dance along the riverbank is beautifully staged. It’s a classic 50s musical concept of love presented in an emotionally touching but chaste way.
Yet, the traditional dream-like quality of the romance is constantly buffeted by the realities of post-war France and the intrusion of modernist notions which we see particularly in Jerry’s art and how this is reflected in the design of the extraordinary ballet sequence. While this type of art first emerged as a response to the First World War, rather than the Second, its use here emphasises the idea that the world has been fundamentally changed by the experience of conflict, where new ideas and freedoms, driven by the young, are demanded to challenge the cosy traditionalism of the elder generations. So the way in which Jerry’s painting captures the imagination of Milo Davenport leads quite naturally to the fully modernist ballet that in look and feel entirely eschews more classical approaches, is redolent of this new wave of art and interpretation that pits two halves of Paris against each other in this show.
Like The Red Shoes (wonderfully staged by Matthew Bourne at Sadler’s Wells recently), An American in Paris contains a lengthy ballet within a ballet as the audience gets to see the show composed by Adam, designed by Jerry and danced by Lise. And it makes for a striking contrast with what has gone before as the stage is filled with geometric shapes in bold primary colours – reflecting work of artists like Mondrian – while the dancer’s costumes are similarly unusual if you’re used to traditional ballet. It’s an incredible piece of work and although it doesn’t add anything much to the direct plot, it is one of highlights of a show that emphasises the integrity of the dance and the emotional turbulence of the characters primarily.
If you’ve never seen the film, then there is a genuine uncertainty about who will end up with who, with the three supporting players nicely fleshed out, giving them proper rounded characters and a realistic stake in the eventual outcome. There are benefits and downsides to this however which slightly take away from the eventual resolution. As our narrator, Adam is already a highly sympathetic character with the audience deliberately on his side from the start and David Seadon-Young really draws on the luckless and lonely composer who writes beautifully but cannot translate his feelings into a real relationship. His unrequited affection for Lise is subtly portrayed and his generosity to his good friend and fellow veteran Jerry make him highly sympathetic.
Likewise the semi-cuckolded Milo becomes Jerry’s rebound love interest which is given considerably poignancy by Zoe Rainey. It’s clear to the audience that she’s just a passing thing but her continued efforts to enhance his career and a growing sense of hopelessness are nicely charted. Joining her is Lise’s fiancé Henri (Haydn Oakley) who is doggedly devoted to his ballerina girlfriend, offering her a less explosive but steady and consistent love. And while the French accents get a bit Allo Allo at times, these characters and their stake in their mutually dependant future are very nicely drawn, which adds considerably to the audience’s dilemma over who to root for.
As a consequence though, and despite beautiful dance performances from Robert Fairchild as Jerry and Leanne Cope as Lise, it becomes increasingly difficult to be entirely on the side of the leads when they deliberately and wilfully string other characters along until they can be together. This did happen in the original film of course but then that was Gene Kelly, and how can you not want smiley charming Gene Kelly to get whoever he wants. Here, Cope and Fairchild are a convincing pairing, but maybe we’re more cynical or we take a more rounded perspective these days, so even if the happy couple dance off into the sunset as the curtain falls you can’t help but think ‘what about all those poor people you hurt.’ And because of the sympathetic portrayal of these other characters, this for me slightly undercuts the “love conquers all” tone of the finale.
The technical design by 59 Projection is stunning helping to create a variety of locations, show big events and reflecting the particularly French style of visual design which add considerably to the atmosphere, bringing a different sense of spectacle and innovation to the West End than we’ve really seen before on this scale. And while the first half is arguably a tad lacklustre, the second draws you into the emotional heart of the story. It may look small on the Dominion stage and while the central romance may not be as transporting as it once was, An American in Paris utilises Gershwin’s beautiful score to offer something quite different to the standard musicals format.
An American in Paris is at The Dominion Theatre until 30 September. Tickets start at £17.50 with reduced prices until 31 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1