Review: Christopher Wheeldon - An American in Paris - Dominion Theatre

Performance: 22 March - 30 September 2017
Reviewed by Siobhan Murphy - Wednesday 22 March 2017

An American in Paris at the Dominion Theatre, London
Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Performance reviewed: 18 March

The first thing that strikes you about Christopher Wheeldon’s An American in Paris is how dark a hue has been cast over the story built around Gershwin tunes. Forget sunny Parisian streets and smiling, singing children; this stage version of Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 Hollywood musical instead plunges us into a grey, menacing city still reeling from the war, with breadlines, desperation, dark secrets and collaborators being attacked. “How can you feel liberated when your city’s been crushed?” asks our narrator, the pianist and composer Adam (David Seadon-Young), who in this incarnation is an acerbic Jewish-American former soldier, injured in combat, who claims (only half-ironically) that his musical themes are “decay and the inevitability of death”.

Much of this scene-setting is achieved in a flurry of gliding staging, elaborate projections and dance vignettes full of jabbing limbs and terse encounters. This is the second thing that strikes you: Wheeldon’s musical, as you might expect from a world-class choreographer, has dance at its core and as its driving force. It reveals the characters, moves along the narrative and emphasises the emotions at play. Props are danced on and off the stage by the cast. The storyline has even been changed so that Lise (the Royal Ballet dancer Leanne Cope taking Leslie Caron’s role), who is the object of all three male protagonists’ desires, is a dancer who gets her break with the Ballet du Châtelet and has a work made on her, the performance of which is the musical’s daring crowning glory.

The American of the title, played with debonair, loose-limbed grace in the film by Gene Kelly, is Jerry, a demobbed GI who stays in Paris to be an artist, only to become entangled with a wealthy art patron (Zoë Rainey), and in a love tussle over Lise with the diffident mummy’s boy Henri (Hadyn Oakley). The New York City Ballet dancer Robert Fairchild takes on the role with gusto. He’s an appealing lead: able to marshal a crowd for the glorious ensemble rendition of I Got Rhythm; convincingly charming as he disrupts the shoppers in Galeries Lafayette (nodding to Singin’ in the Rain with a flourish of umbrellas) while wooing Lise with Beginner’s Luck – one of many additions to the Gershwin numbers that were in the film. In his solos and his duets with Cope, there are flashes of Kelly in his movement, but Fairchild, a beautiful classical dancer with liquid lines and pin-sharp turns, is a very different proposition. He doesn’t even attempt tap – the only time we get a glimmer of that dance form is when Henri imagines himself achieving his secret dream and singing Stairway to Paradise at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

Wheeldon has fun at ballet’s expense when he has the Châtelet dancers perform an exaggerated avant-garde gala display, entitled The Eclipse of Uranus. But, rather marvellously, he doesn’t compromise in the slightest when it comes to the climactic ballet sequence, built on the titular Gershwin jazz-symphonic poem. The dancers, in Mondrian-inspired costume (Bob Crowley’s wardrobe and stage designs are saturated with art references) move beautifully in keeping with the era they are evoking, in a piece that has echoes of Balanchine’s sculptural angularity. Then with one quick dress change, we’re in Lise’s fantasy moment, where she and Jerry are together, and it’s pure, glorious Jerome Robbins lushness; big emotions, thrilling lifts and bounding leaps, with Cope adorning the pas de deux with delicate pointe work and Fairchild spinning up a storm.

For dance fans, then, a treat. For musical-theatre fans, though, I think this American in Paris proves problematic. For a dance to fully express a narrative moment it needs time to unravel – but this disrupts the musical’s flow and makes for pauses and longueurs. The whizz-bang, hi-tech staging flies about in a seemingly never-ending whirl as if to compensate, but all it does is make you feel a bit dizzy. And commendable as it may be to add some reality to this depiction of postwar Paris, the references to Nazis and French guilt, and a damp squib of a murky back story, that have been jammed into Craig Lucas’s book feel forced. Accents slip and slide (particularly Jane Asher’s as Henri’s overbearing mother). And although Fairchild and Cope have lived with these roles for a long time, having performed first in Paris, then in a Broadway run, their singing is not show-stopping. It’s probably for these reasons that I came away impressed by the spectacle, but not tingling.

Siobhan Murphy is a freelance writer and editor, who also contributes to Dancetabs and Time Out. Find her on Twitter @blacktigerlily

At the Dominion, London, until 30 September 2017.
Dominion Theatre,
268-269 Tottenham Court Road,
London, W1T 7AQ.
Box office: 0844-847 1775.

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