John Garcia

The 1951 MGM classic film An American in Paris (AAIP) is one of the very few movie musicals to take home the Academy Award for Best Picture, with a final tally of six golden statuettes.

It was originally a 1928 symphonic tone poem composed by Gershwin, He was inspired when he visited Paris in the 1920s.

The musical version of AAIP has a very (and I mean VERY) strong chance of taking back to the Palace Theater in June the Tony for Best Musical, and if it does, it will be the first musical that relies primarily on choreography to win since 2000 when Susan Stroman’s Contact took the prize.

All musicals have some semblance of dance, but a mere handful are mainly dance, such as Fosse, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, and the aforementioned Contact. Add now An American in Paris to that hallowed list.

The stage musical is based on the Oscar-winning film but with a plethora of changes, edits, new songs from the Gershwin canon, while several of the film’s songs having been deleted. 2008 was the first time it appeared onstage at the Alley Theatre in Houston, TX.

It would return again in 2014, but first with a try out run in Paris! Talk about making certain to have distance from the gossipy theater columnists and Gotham critics. This new version had its tryout run at the Théâtre du Châtelet. Returning to the states, the musical opened at the Palace Theater on Broadway on April 12th. In a sweet taste of fate, the new musical received twelve Tony nominations.

What really stands out in this new stage version is the masterful book work done by Craig Lucas. He kept the outline of the film but then added layers of more realistic conflict, drama, sensual romance, and textured subtext. The stage version now begins with WWII ending. We see leading man Jerry Milligan (Robert Fairchild) who was just discharged from the Army. He didn’t want to return home, but instead become a stranger in Paris and fulfill his passion as an artist/painter. He is facing upstage to a projection of The Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile with airplanes flying over it. The projection material suddenly transforms into garish red and emblem of the Nazi flag. The ensemble screams in protest, and in a flash tears it down, all running downstage holding above their heads yards of billowing material, upon which the French flag is then projected. In just that one scene the audience is primed for a more dramatic musical thanks to Lucas’ tightened, overflowing in reality, powerful book.

The musical is Christopher Wheeldon’s debut as a Broadway musical director; talk about placing your stamp firmly on the Great White Way! He had previously served as Choreographer in 2002 with Sweet Smell of Success, another musical based on a film.

Photo: Angela Sterling

Photo: Angela Sterling

Wheeldon’s direction and choreography result in a stunning, splendorous production that leaves the audience in a haze of magical creativity. He pays homage to the film’s director, Vincente Minnelli, and choreographer Gene Kelly. But Wheeldon then paints in bold majestic strokes his own vision. He smartly keeps the entire production covered in realism. There are some great laughs throughout the show, yet he makes sure to stay behind the chalk line of being labeled musical comedy. The pace is refreshing, allowing the dramatic elements to breathe and linger, thereby giving the audience to honestly feel the principal characters’ emotions. Wheeldon has everything choreographed, from the scene changes to the placement of furniture, properties, etc. Nothing is simply a walk in/ walk out in the dark with his company. 

The choreography is a masterpiece of dance. There is ballet, of course, but also tap, modern, jazz, even acrobatics! Wheeldon creates his choreography to overflow with subtext. Jerry walks around Paris to see his brothers in combat reunite with loved ones, all danced in soft, hushed ballet that pours out the relief and joy of seeing a loved one come home. But then the choreography harshly shows the reality of the aftermath of war. A lone woman crosses the stage wearing a swastika armband; in choreographed chaos and anger the ensemble attacks her, raising her over their heads and upstage like carnivorous animals ready to tear to shreds its live meal. And that’s just the first ten minutes!

Wheeldon’s peerless work is also displayed in the parfumerie scene where Lise (Leanne Cope) works. Employees and patrons dance a sophisticated, rigid ballet, relating the stuffiness, nose in the air attitude of everyone there. Once Jerry begins to sing to Lise (the girl he falls for), his joy at the beginnings of falling in love wafts like a mist amongst the rest of the company. In a split second the company magically transforms right there on the stage from dark, somber overtones from their current costumes to complete new ones done in pastels! This transformation is assisted with Jerry and others holding long white strips of material, where upon a projection of colorful flowers appear on this fabric, the material is pulled away and bam! New costumes! This was met with gasps and awes from the Saturday evening audience. The company then begins to dance with such happiness and feel relieved to just let go and feel life.

One of the splashiest, crowd pleasing numbers is “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”, sung by Henri (Max Von Essen) as a solo dream sequence, then a duet with Adam, and finally a full out number with Henri and company. In this number, Wheeldon goes for tap and Broadway razzle dazzle. It builds and builds to an explosion of dance and color that was met with loud cheers and whistles by the audience.

Though Wheeldon’s choreography goes from simplistic to jaw-dropping amazing, it is in the famous ballet, “An American in Paris”, that his work rises to extraordinary, from beginning to end. Lise leading the company, dances with liquid fluidity. Adding sections of modern dance, it then becomes a duet between Lise and Jerry where Wheeldon’s choreography radiates love, sensual eroticism, and passion- all in dance. The final section of the ballet returns the full company to end in a mixture of ballet and modern. The originality of the choreography, with its subtext, execution, and detail, was met by a prolonged thunderous applause from the audience. It is phenomenal to observe and will live in the history books as one of the greatest choreographic achievements in musical theater.

There are so few Directors/Choreographers in today’s Broadway that stand out for achieving success in both areas. Jerry Mitchell and Susan Stroman come to mind. In the past there was Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett, and Bob Fosse. You can add Christopher Wheeldon to that elite list.

Bob Crowley’s scenic design is glorious. Along with the projection design by 59 Productions, Crowley also pays homage to the film by having uniquely odd set piece shapes fly in or be whisked onto the stage from the sides to allow projections to show the set being drawn right before your eyes (Jerry being a painter/artist). On these angular or circular pieces other projections bloom alive, like a flower opening up. When Lise and Jerry meet up at the Seine River, Crowley again designs magic. A long set piece is at an angle, then two real row boats fly in, and the projections bathe the background with aqua blue water that twinkles, creates tiny waves, or when Jerry falls into the water, a major ripple transforms on the water. 

Crowley has a series of mirrored walls that the company, in choreographed movement, travels all over the stage to create various scenes. The backdrop for Henri’s big number in Act II is sprinkled in glitter with a burst of Erté design and twinkling lights, framing the number with a massive, silver art deco creation. From the parfumerie to the piano bar, to Milo Davenport’s swanky townhouse, or the elegant mini stage set for the Baurnel elegant party scene, Crowley creates a smorgasbord of flawless scenery. 

Crowley also designed the costumes which are mouth-wateringly gorgeous. The gowns and costumes for the women are true to period, right down to the hats and gloves. Rich benefactor Milo Davenport and Madame Baurel wear such beautiful costumes, they look like they came off a Paris fashion runway. Rich silks and satins, or bold prints are all used here. In the parfumerie number, the cast wears pastels, the girls in billowing, pleated chiffon skirts with yards of tulle underneath. Each costume is topped off with exquisite hats. For Henri’s Act II number, the showgirls’ costumes are adorned in blinding rhinestones and beads. His spectacular designs for both set and costume are a smashing success.

Natasha Katz does wonders within her sublime lighting design. Each scene and number is bathed in a sea of color, shape and form. Her work enhances the emotion of the musical from beginning to end. She, along with Crowley, creates a cohesive harmony of set, light, and costume. Katz includes lighting within set pieces as well, such as the art deco proscenium piece for Henri’s big number, the piece changing color several times to match the orchestration. The lighting for the Act II ballet is perfection, both in design and its emotional enhancement of the choreography. 

Robert Fairchild, who plays Jerry, has been a principal dancer with the NYC Ballet since 2009, while Leanne Cope, as Lise, graduated from the Royal Ballet School. Halfway through Act I you can see why these two earned Tony Award nominations this season. Their chemistry ebbs so much love, eroticism, compassion, conflict, and honesty. What separates them from other couples in musical theater is that they don’t just sing about it, they express it through dance. All I can say is OMG when they dance together! This chemistry mixed with their execution of the choreography, and add seduction and honest emotion of it, well it is something so very rarely seen in today’s musicals. From the beginning of their attraction and flirtation to their full on heated love, their execution of their choreographed numbers as a couple will astound you. 

Tall, devilishly handsome Fairchild dances with muscular athleticism and masculinity. He leaps so high in the air that you start squinting your eyes to see the invisible wire that must be there to assist him! In the “An American in Paris” ballet, his spinning leaps around the entire company had the audience erupt in applause. Fairchild also possesses something Mikhail Baryshnikov does not - a soothing yet robust tenor singing voice. When I saw Twyla Tharp’s fantastic, Broadway production of Movin Out, none of the dancers sang. Instead they had on stage above the cast the band with a sole male singer sing the entire show, alone. How rare to have a ballet star such as Fairchild sing so beautifully. His acting craft is right on point (no pun intended). His warm, brown eyes, facial expressions, and commitment to characterization are fully displayed within his performance.

You know those women that are so ravishing beautiful that they take your breath away? Well, that is Leanne Cope. With porcelain features and hypnotic eyes, she is a dancing Aphrodite! This tiny girl has to carry the massive weight of the infamous second act ballet, and does it so effortlessly. Her ballet technique is nothing like I’ve seen before. She executes Wheeldon’s choreography with endless amounts of raw emotion, innocence, and vivid subtext. She doesn’t just “do” the choreography; she breathes and lives through every pirouette, every piqué, and every relevé. And like Fairchild, Cope is a ballet star who also sings elegantly. Cope possesses a divine soprano voice that is sturdy and full, like those layers of tulle that make the ballerina’s iconic skirt. Cope’s acting ability and facial expressions show why Fairchild’s Jerry falls so deeply in love with her. Her eyes glitter in the lights and reflect so much emotion, you can see right into her heart. 

Veanne Cox, playing Madame Baurel, provides some of the biggest laughs during the musical. This exquisite redhead wears Crowley’s finely tailored costumes like a second skin. I have seen her in past Broadway musicals and she always steals scenes with her hysterical comedic timing. As Madame Baurel, she displays a grand diva attitude with a thick French accent. Madame Baurel heads up the board of the Ballet du Châtelet and is a major fixture in Parisian society. Her great facial expressions match her comedic delivery, and she literally steals scene after scene. I so wish Cox was given a solo; you can feel the audience begging for it. She is a stand out in the show’s top notch cast.

Another first rate performance comes from Jill Paice as Milo Davenport, the rich heiress who dresses to the nines but, sadly, has no one to love her. Paice has a powerful soprano voice to give her solos the gloss and shine they deserve. Her acting connects perfectly with her characterization. You feel her character’s deep loneliness and thirst to be loved. Crowley used Paice’s long, sensual body as his muse to create lavish haute couture for her to wear.

Brandon Uranowitz plays Adam Hochberg, a broke but talented composer. Uranowitz too brings loads of laughter with his characterization. His comedic timing and delivery is like a constant rim shot, nailing his zingers like a pro. This immensely talented actor also has a buttery baritone voice, and his musical numbers within the score are excellently sung. Adam (who is Jewish) wounded his leg in the war, and he never loses the walk he created to achieve this visual within his role. His acting portrays Hochberg’s heartbreak and unrequited love for Lise. This is best displayed in his heartbreaking song, “But Not For Me”. As he sings the lyrics that love once again ignored him, Uranowitz’s face is streaked with real tears. He pulls compassion from the audience as he is so lovable you want him to get the girl. For those very familiar with the film, see if you catch the inside joke from it that Uranowitz throws out - it’s like an Easter egg in a DVD! His performance in AAIP clearly shows why he earned a Tony nomination.

Oddly enough, the role with the most difficult arc to crest through is not the lead but a supporting role, that of Max Von Essen as Henri Baurel. Henri comes from a wealthy family and is engaged to marry Lise. Essen easily is the best singer in the company, a big, belting tenor voice that can be heard past the Palace Theater doors and onto Times Square. His role is given some of the most familiar songs within the score, such as “I Got Rhythm”, “S Wonderful” (along with Fairchild and Uranowitz), and the show stopper, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”. 

Book writer Craig Lucas states that in the film, those creators might have been able to be show realism with the war so fresh in people’s minds when the film premiered. But now with time this musical can. Again this relates to Henri 

He is supposed to follow in the family business but wants to be in showbiz instead. He loves Lise, but in a moving twist, the book hints that Henri is also questioning his sexuality. Essen displays raw, organic realism as the conflicted Henri, in regards to his family, Lise, and sexuality. Sometimes, Essen’s facial expressions punch you in the gut as you see a man’s heart get shattered to pieces. Using a full French accent, Essen shifts to deliver some of the funniest moments of the evening. He butchers the English language and has a hilarious laugh that caused the audience to roll in laughter. But then comes the second act number, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”. Essen begins frozen, singing awkwardly, but as he dreams on how the number could be, his singing opens up, and the stage magically transforms to a fantasy art deco set, complete with black-tuxedoed men and “girls with gams”, decked in rhinestone costumes and feather headdresses. As if that wasn’t enough, Essen and the company do a tap number that is pure Broadway glory. He sings full out, after all that dancing and incredible energy, belting a final, sustained tenor note for several measures. For his performance, Essen achieved that rare feat on Broadway, earning nominations from all three major award organizations: The Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and the Antoinette Perry. He is simply remarkable in this musical. Finally, a standing ovation goes to the ensemble. An army of dancers, they deserve a Tony Award as the best ensemble in a new musical this season. Their execution of Wheeldon’s choreography is miraculous. They are the ones that move on set pieces and then dance away. They are explosive in their chorography number after number, all choreographed for high energy. Throughout the second act ballet number I could hear audience members whisper, “Wow!”, or “Ohmigod!”, and then burst into applause. That is how remarkable they all are.

After seeing An American in Paris, I understand why it earned twelve Tony nominations. The musical is breaking new ground in musical theater. This union of Gershwin music and Wheeldon’s choreography/Direction is dynamic and compelling. Add to that exciting, never seen scenic design and sumptuous costumes, it’s like nothing theatre goers have seen in a VERY long time. When dance is such a major focal point, to also have strong singing and acting is a rare thing in today’s musical creations. 

At the Palace Theater they are making Broadway history with this revolutionary musical called An American in Paris.

This also appears on Mr Garcia's site, The Column

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