Music and Lyrics: George and Ira Gershwin
Choreographer and Director: Christopher Wheeldon
After a raft of fairly old productions from the Andrew Lloyd Webber archive and some American TV movie adaptations, The Shows Must Go On digital channel has returned stronger than ever from its late summer recess. This weekend it launches a Tony Award Winners season with Christopher Wheeldon’s sparkling 2017 adaptation of An American in Paris made available for just 48 hours.
Former GIs Jerry and friend Adam decide to stay in Paris at the end of the Second World to pursue their artistic careers when they both meet and independently fall in love with dancer Lise who hopes to win a place at the ballet school. But Lise is engaged to family friend Henri who must hide his dreams of becoming a cabaret singer from his straightlaced parents. When Jerry becomes involved with arts lover Milo, no one seems destined for a happy ending.
Bob Crowley’s designs for An American in Paris are a masterpiece of scenic invention and anyone lucky enough to have seen it live at the Dominion Theatre will remember just what a dazzling spectacle this show was. Most of that translates to film very well, and while the tight camera focus on the leads sometimes loses the full-stage effect, the imagination, flow and elegance of Crowley’s vision is there for all to see.
Giant silken sheets tumble across the stage as the French flag is raised at the start of the night, moveable scenery panels are wheeled around by all-but-invisible stagehands onto which 59 Productions Ltd project graphic depictions of Parisian streets that nod to Jerry’s talent for drawing. There are beautiful painterly visions of twilight settings, riverside meetings and romantic city streets that create scene, setting and mood so perfectly. But there is a darkness underlying it all, as the long shadow of occupation and its consequences prevent An American in Paris from become too wistful and sickly sweet.
With so many modern musicals angled towards the vocal performance, it is relatively rare to see one that is primarily a dance experience, and jazz ballet in particular. This is a large theatre space but Wheeldon weaves his performers around the busy scenery to ensure every set piece and even the smallest linking scene is choreographically integrated into the story, filling the stage with activity or emotion at every possible moment.
A scene set in the dress shop where Lise works is extraordinary, beginning between the tight confines of the dark wood countertops before opening out like a flower to reveal colour and movement that is both stylish and cheeky until the fantasy of it folds back into Lise’s original reality. The same happens in Henri’s cabaret scene, taking him from the small backstreet jazz club to a big arena filled with lights and showgirls, but at every point Wheeldon is in complete control of scale and pace.
The culmination, of course, is the Mondrian ballet that concludes Act Two, a fabulous piece of modernism that also evolves into Lise’s fantasy dance with Jerry as the pair find love in the abstract forms and shapes that fill the performance space with minimalist block colours, contrasting pointedly with the traditionally staged cafes and apartments of the characters’ ‘real’ lives.
Robert Fairchild is a joy as Jerry Mulligan, a dancer whose jazz ballet shapes are light and effortlessly graceful. Gene Kelly is a tough act to follow, but Fairchild pays tribute to Kelly’s style adding a swagger as well as using thighs and knees as Kelly did to create that pulsing leg action. The partnership with Leanne Cope’s Lise is charming and their first dance together by the Seine is a lovely mix of quickstep and ballet duet that has pace and bounce as well as slow intimate moments.
There is just one irreconcilable problem with An American in Paris – the lead characters behave so badly to those around them, romantically stringing others along for no obvious reason that their eventually happy ending at others’ expense feels a little undeserved. Nonetheless, Wheeldon’s show is one of the most enchanting musical experiences of recent years, the perfect antidote to another weekend in lockdown that will make you yearn to be back in the theatre once more.
Available here until 29 November 2020