Review: Graceful 'An American in Paris' has pizazz and heart

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — This season on Broadway features multiple musicals that are based on iconic films. One of the most sublime among them is surely "An American in Paris," inspired by the multiple Oscar-winning 1950 musical by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin and brilliantly choreographed by Gene Kelly.

The exuberant new musical is helmed with panache by top director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. Gloriously inventive and balletic, it has an intriguing new book by Tony-nominee and Pulitzer Prize finalist Craig Lucas. Following a debut in Paris last year, an elegant production opened Sunday night on Broadway at the Palace Theatre.

The Gershwin brothers' music has been adapted, arranged and supervised by Rob Fisher. Beautifully orchestrated by Christopher Austin, it's performed by a large, bright orchestra led by Todd Ellison.

The mix of popular songs and symphonic music, infused with ragtime, blues and Broadway rhythms, includes favorites like "I Got Rhythm," ''S'Wonderful," ''I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," and "They Can't Take That Away From Me." Some scenes are burnished with familiar orchestral numbers like "Second Rhapsody" and "An American In Paris."

Lucas' completely reworked book adds historical context in which the French Resistance plays a role. A series of romantic entanglements unfold in 1945 Paris, just after the World War II liberation from the Nazis by American troops. The romantic hero, American soldier and artist Jerry Mulligan, is given a powerhouse personality and masterfully danced and sung in a star turn by Robert Fairchild, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet.

Jerry and his new buddy, composer/pianist Adam Hochberg, (portrayed with humor and heart by Brandon Uranowitz), decide to remain in Paris for the rich artistic and cultural atmosphere they hope will return. Hochberg humorously narrates the story, in which the two friends unknowingly fall for the same woman, a mysteriously melancholy ballerina named Lise, given waifish charm by Leanne Cope. Cope, a first artist at the Royal Ballet, also displays a sweet singing voice, especially on her poignant solo, "The Man I Love."

To further the romantic complications, Lise is the intended fiancee of the buddies' wealthy friend Henri (charmingly performed by Max von Essen.) The strong supporting cast includes Jill Paice as American art patron Milo Davenport who falls for Jerry, and a comically repressed performance by Veanne Cox as Henri's mother, still clinging to wartime secrecy and fears. Some clumsy French-accented English is noticeable but doesn't detract from the show's charm.

The somber first scene includes replacing a Nazi flag with the French tricolor, the shaming of wartime collaborators, and women greeting their men home from war. Part of Lucas' added backstory, it reflects the bittersweet relief Parisians felt after living through an epic catastrophe of inhumanity and destruction.

Gray buttresses glide around the top-notch ensemble as they gravely dance their return to life and their hopes for a new beginning. Next comes a funereal-to-rollicking version of "I Got Rhythm," which sets the lively tone for the rest of the show.

Wheeldon keeps the cast in constant motion and emotion, with scene tempos ranging from quiet lovers' meetings to a madcap, blow-the-dust-off disruption of a snooty department store ("I've Got Beginner's Luck"), to a comical harmonizing of "S'Wonderful," in which the three hopeful suitors each believe Lise loves him alone.

Scenery and costumes by Tony-winner Bob Crowley are bold and witty, with inventive props whirling around amid the dancers, including artfully aged mirrors to simulate a ballet studio. Clever projections by 59 Productions help the cast appear to ramble all around Paris, notably creating a peaceful quayside Seine bench as well as a seedy nightclub and elegant apartments.

Costumes get brighter as Paris regains some of its dazzle, culminating in the magnificently jazzy presentation of "An American in Paris." That sensual pas de deux for Jerry and Lise is the center of a swirling, abstract ensemble number, with the cast garbed in colorful, Mondrian-inspired outfits that signify the arrival of the Modern Age.

Beneath the considerable pizazz, Wheeldon conveys with grace and style the heartfelt romance and emotional colors that keep us enchanted until the last beautiful note has been sung.