It’s hard in music or theatre to make anything seem new. George Gershwin’s An American in Paris has been around for a long time. It debuted as an orchestral piece in 1928. Part of it was featured as a ballet piece in Gershwin’s musical Show Girl. It formed the basis of the great 1951 film, which starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.
The current Broadway musical based on both the film and the orchestral piece makes the material seem fresh. Playing at New York’s Palace Theatre, it is one of the best musicals on Broadway.
The show makes impressive interplay of the arts, always a goal for the musical theatre. George Gershwin paid a lot of attention in his last years to the visual arts. He collected art, and actually had an exhibit as a painter. He would have been happy with An American in Paris, which follows American veteran Jerry Mulligan as a he chooses to make a career as a painter after World War II.
Painting makes an important contribution to the play, as Paris backgrounds resemble a series of paintings. The visual team, led by set and costume designer Bob Crowley, was successful moving the set design forward in time from impressionism through abstract art. In the final ballet, which resembles the film in using Gershwin’s orchestral piece, we are visually in that postwar world.
Multi-art theatre calls for multidimensional performers. Director Christopher Wheeldon, who, before this musical, worked principally as a choreographer, has recruited many ballet dancers for this show. All of them can sing and act as well as dance.
Leanne Cope, the Leslie Caron lookalike dancer cast as the romantic female lead, sings well. And Robert Fairchild, Brandon Uranowitz and Max Von Essen, cast as a trio of friends, are all accomplished triple threat performers.
Equally impressive is Jill Paice. As Jerry Mulligan’s benefactress, Milo Davenport, Paice gives depth to the role of a woman whose wealth does not bring her love.
A final word of praise should be given to the show’s book author, playwright Craig Lucas, who is emerging as one of the best librettists now working in musical theatre. His script expanded Alan Jay Lerner’s 1951 screenplay, and explored the angst of soldiers and besieged Parisians who have been through war, without taking from the story’s essential fun.
Something of Lucas’s skill and sensitivity can be gauged by contrasting An American in Paris with Broadway’s recent Nice Work if You Can Get It, also based on Gershwin’s music. While Nice Work… makes no effort to integrate the Gershwin songs with the dramatic action, the songs in An American in Paris enhance our understanding of the characters.