'An American in Paris': Theater Review

Rhapsody in dance

One of the most beloved MGM movie musicals from the Arthur Freed stable gets new life on the Broadway stage, with ballet star Robert Fairchild sauntering in for Gene Kelly.

Some Broadway seasons can slip by leaving the sad impression that the expressive power of dance in the musical-theater lexicon has been forgotten. But this one has already yielded the joyous resurrection of Jerome Robbins' athleticism via Joshua Bergasse's buoyant moves in On the Town. Now comes ballet luminary Christopher Wheeldon, taking an exhilarating leap as director-choreographer with An American in Paris, another show indelibly associated with a classic MGM movie musical. Not only is Wheeldon's nuanced command of storytelling through dance front and center, the production also foregrounds a triple-threat revelation in NYC Ballet principal Robert Fairchild, who proves himself more than capable of following in the suave footsteps of Gene Kelly.

If playwright Craig Lucas' book scenes at times seem over-complicated, and some of the songs feel shoehorned in rather than integral to the plot, that's a small price to pay. When the music is this glorious, who's complaining? And perhaps it's inevitable that when the many and varied dance interludes convey such soaring romance with such grown-up sophistication — not to mention settings so evocative you can practically smell the fresh-baked baguettes — dialogue scenes can sometimes seem an impediment. But an awkward transition or two can't diminish the pleasures of a show that's one long sustained swoon. And given that An American in Paris began as a jazz- and classical-influenced 1928 symphonic suite by George Gershwin (the popular songs, written with his lyricist brother Ira, were added for the movie), story was never going to be its strongest suit.

Wheeldon's affection for the 1951 Vincente Minnelli movie clearly runs deep. In 2005 he created a piece for City Ballet, inspired by the celebrated 17-minute dance fantasy with Kelly and Leslie Caron that concludes the film. That romanticized dream again figures prominently and at identical length here, with a ravishing climactic ballet that looks to Mondrian for its design elements. But the sequence is now woven into a full narrative that expands on the movie's wispy plot with some significant embellishments.

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Bob Crowley, a key collaborator on some of Wheeldon's dance work, is recruited here on both sets and costumes; his contribution to the visual fluidity of the storytelling is enormous, aided immeasurably by video elements from 59 Productions. The artful blend of physical and digital scenic craft allows for nimble shifts in the action from, say, a riverbank to a ballet studio to a jazz club to a masked ball in just a few bars of music.

The timeframe has been moved up from a few years after World War II into its immediate wake in 1945, when Paris is still emerging from under the long shadow of German Occupation. In a stunning opening sequence, a giant Nazi banner makes way for the French Tricolore and then for U.S. soldier Jerry Mulligan (Fairchild) framed by the Arc de Triomphe. As pencil sketches, projected images and scenic flats depicting Paris blend into a canvas in motion, accompanied by the pensive piano and moody brass of Gershwin's "Concerto in F," Jerry observes petite beauty Lise (Leanne Cope) sharing her meager ration of bread outside a boulangerie.

Aside from some brief scene-setting narration by another American war veteran, wisecracking pianist Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz), the extended intro is entirely balletic, showing a wounded city still in turmoil. It's a somber but beckoning gateway to this world, and it establishes from the outset that grace will be the show's defining quality.

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Having decided to stay on in Paris and try to scratch out a living as an artist, Jerry strikes up a friendship with Adam, who works as a rehearsal pianist for Henri Baurel (Max von Essen), a well-heeled Frenchman honing his singing skills to tour America. In an amusing nod to the lingering pall of war, Adam plays "I Got Rhythm" like a dirge until Henri gooses up the tempo. One explosive café dance number later, the guys declare themselves the Three Musketeers. Lucas ups the stakes from the movie, however, by having not only Jerry and Henri unwittingly in love with the same woman, but also Adam.

Perhaps the smartest tweak to the story is making Lise a budding ballerina like her celebrated mother, though her past, and her indebtedness to Henri's family, are kept under wraps as the story begins. Likewise the reasons that Henri's starchy mother (Veanne Cox) maintains such a secretive air. While it's essential to the plot that Jerry and Adam remain in the dark about these factors, Lucas' elaboration of them is fussy and belabored, yielding some slightly cumbersome book scenes. But the innovation of having Lise be the star of a new ballet, composed by Adam and designed by Jerry, works well. The production is to be funded by American philanthropist Milo Davenport (Jill Paice). That willowy glamour-puss casts an appreciative eye over Jerry's sculpted rear in those high-waisted 1940s pants (as does every woman and gay man in the audience, I suspect), and instantly stakes her claim. But Jerry only has eyes for Lise.

There's no evidence of Wheeldon's inexperience working with actors in the cast's appealing characterizations, which take shape as much in the playful dance interludes as in dialogue.

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A relative newcomer to Broadway, Uranowitz is funny and self-deprecating, revealing a poignant longing for love in his tender rendition of "But Not for Me." (In a winking nod to the movie, Adam jokingly compares himself to Oscar Levant at one point.) Von Essen nicely contrasts Henri's dapper appearance with insecurity about his claim on Lise's love, which is fed by Lucas in a sensitively handled modern character reinterpretation. If fans of the movie will miss those synchronized illuminated steps and the showgirls as human candelabras in Henri's "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" number, von Essen nonetheless makes rousing work of it in a Radio City fantasy replete with leggy chorines in plumage. The easygoing buddy camaraderie between these guys and Jerry is infectious, even when tested by their competing feelings for Lise.

An artist with London's Royal Ballet making her musical theater debut, the enchanting Cope has delicacy and charm; she's a confident singer, and while there's only a passing physical resemblance, her diminutive size and that chic French bob subtly recall Caron. Cox mines the dry humor in the role of Mme. Baurel, an uptight bourgeois matron hiding the jazz baby within. And the gorgeous Paice is a superb stand-in for Nina Foch in the movie, dispensing worldly quips with panache while revealing the solitude and warmth beneath Milo's predatory come-ons. If she doesn't get the man, then at least Crowley gives her a fabulous clotheshorse wardrobe, with one knockout gown after another.

The true star here, however, is the long-legged Fairchild, whose dreamily elegant form as a dancer — his jetés and pirouettes seem as natural to him as walking — is matched by charisma, understated masculinity and matinee-idol looks. Simultaneously sportive and sincere, he's ideal romantic-lead material, particularly in lovely scenes in which Jerry woos Lise by the banks of the Seine, the two of them swathed in Natasha Katz's rippling light. Their pas de deux in the concluding ballet that gives the show its title is quite thrilling, with Fairchild and Cope alternately challenging and echoing each other's moves while fusing in and out of mesmerizing airborne union. (Fairchild's sister and fellow City Ballet principal, Megan Fairchild, is also making her Broadway debut in On the Town.)

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Some songs from the film have been excised with others added, and while not all are perfect fits — the lurch into "'S Wonderful" is abrupt; "Fidgety Feet" during a ballet reception makes almost no sense; and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" feels tacked on at the end just to give the guys a final salute — the performances are invariably a delight. One of the best additions is "Beginner's Luck," during which Jerry mounts an impromptu romantic assault on Lise, causing chaos while she's at work behind the perfume counter at Galeries Lafayette. Wheeldon's staging of the number is controlled anarchy and a lot of fun, and the designers' work depicting the store fittings and stained-glass dome is beautiful.

Even with its imperfections, this is a thoroughly captivating musical; melancholy, droll and breezily uplifting by turns, with a uniformly excellent ballet ensemble. How fitting that a movie considered one of the great visualizations of music in dance — and in the magical soundstage artifice of its sense of place — almost 65 years later should yield a breathtakingly fresh musical in which love and rebirth after war are embodied in ecstatic, transporting movement.

Cast: Robert Fairchild, Leanne Cope, Veanne Cox, Jill Paice, Brandon Uranowitz, Max von Essen, Will Burton, Attila Joey Csiki, Michael Cusumano, Taeler Cyrus, Rebecca Eichenberger, Sara Esty, Laura Feig, Heather Lang, Dustin Layton, Nathan Madden, Candy Olsen, Rebecca Riker, Shannon Rugani, Garen Scribner, Sarrah Strimel, Charlie Sutton, Allison Walsh, Scott Willis, Victor J. Wisehart

Director-choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon

Music & lyrics: George and Ira Gershwin

Book: Craig Lucas, inspired by the movie

Set & costume designer: Bob Crowley

Lighting designer: Natasha Katz

Sound designer: Jon Weston

Projection designer: 59 Productions

Orchestrations: Christopher Austin

Music direction: Brad Haak

Musical score adaptation, arrangement & supervision: Rob Fischer

Presented by Stuart Oken, Van Kaplan, Roy Furman, Stephanie P. McClelland, Darren Bagert, Carole L. Haber, James Nederlander, Five Cent Productions, Michael Leavitt, Apples and Oranges Studios/Dominion Pictures, Roger Berlind/Arch Road, Simone Genatt Haft/Marc Routh, Triptyk Studios/Spencer Ross, Ed Walson/Peter May, Adam Zotovich/Celia Atkin, Eugene Beard/Julie Boardman/Kallish-Weinstein, Stuart Ditsky/Jim Herbert/Sandy Robertson, Suzanne Friedman/Independent Presenters Network/Wonderful Productions, The Leonore S. Gershwin 1987 Trust/Jenkins-Taylor/Proctors, Harriet Newman Leve/Jane Dubin/Sarahbeth Grossman, Caiola Productions/Jennifer Isaacson/Raise the Curtain, by special arrangement with Elephant Eye Theatrical, Pittsburgh CLO, Theatre du Chatelet

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