‘S wonderful, ‘s marvellous. An American in Paris at the Dominion Theatre is magic on stage. The classic 1951 Gene Kelly movie has been transformed into a musical so joyous and colourful and heart-warming that you’ll want to find a time machine and buy a plane ticket to Paris and climb right in to the world of this production. All the way home, you’ll grin at strangers as you hum the Gershwin tunes under your breath.
But “transformed” is the appropriate word, because this musical has been rebuilt from the ground up. That’s probably a good thing. Even though it was saddening not to see certain favourite scenes from the 1951 original (Gene Kelly’s Jerry Mulligan teaching the Parisian kids English! Adam hilariously realising his pals are in love with the same lady!), a new production demanded something fresh.
And that’s what director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has delivered in this West End transfer of the Tony Award-winning Broadway production.
The skeleton of the story remains the same: ex-American GI Jerry Mulligan stays in Paris after the war to pursue his dream of being a painter, where he befriends French singer Henri Baurel and grumpy American pianist Adam. He’s ‘discovered’ by rich benefactor Milo Davenport, an American lady who won’t take no for an answer. By chance he meets a beautiful French girl Lise Dassin and falls head-over-heals in love with her, completely oblivious to the fact that she’s actually the girl his friend Henri is in love with.
But while the characters are all here and are true to the original, An American in Paris has been re-invented. Lise’s an aspiring ballet dancer, Milo is the ballet’s benefactor, Adam composes for the ballet and Milo gets Jerry a gig as the set designer, so the whole thing focuses on a climactic dance performance – a production within the production, replacing the movie’s famous ballet dream sequence.
And this is post-war Paris and Jerry is an ex-soldier, so why not actually talk about the war that has just flattened Europe? The production starts with Nazi flags and bread-lines and the Parisians viciously attacking a collaborator. Jerry (Robert Fairchild) says he doesn’t want to talk about the fighting, but at one point he bursts out about how it felt to have his friend’s brains land on his lap. Adam’s a Jew, and jokes about his landlords not taking any rent out of guilt. Milo reminds an uncomfortable ballet maestro that he’ll have a funding gap now the Nazi money is gone. When the electricity goes out in a café, the Parisians dive to the floor to avoid an imagined bombing attack. An American in Paris has gained a new depth.
But as Jerry and Henri (Haydn Oakley) finally manage to convince grumpy Adam (David Seadon-Young) you can’t be miserable all the time, there’s plenty of comedy here (especially from Zoe Rainey, who makes Milo into a far more likeable character). The war is over; music and dance are here to cheer people up – and so this production becomes a riot of movement and colour and song.
Leanne Cope (Lise) and Robert Fairchild are breath-taking dancers. The moments when you’re really watching magic on stage are their duets, where they seem to be halves of a whole, with perfect chemistry. To have two first-rate ballet dancers in the lead roles is a treat: Fairchild was a Principal Dancer at the New York City Ballet, while Cope was a First Artist at the Royal Ballet here in London. But the two are also impressive actors – and the singing isn’t half bad either.
An American in Paris works in George and Ira Gershwin’s original numbers, from I Got Rhythm to ‘S Wonderful to Love Is Here To Stay. But Wheeldon’s production also opens up the Gershwin songbook and borrows numbers from earlier Fred Astaire movies: I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck, They Can’t Take That Away From Me. Fairchild really does have a touch of Gene Kelly about him as he takes on the classics, but Astaire is in the mix too.
Stage musicals run the danger of being clunky: “Here’s the acting bit, and now we’re going to do the set-piece singing-and-dancing bit, and then back to the acting”. But An American in Paris is seamless. It flows along and suddenly you find yourself in the middle of a musical number, without the storyline ever grinding to a halt.
The dream sequences also move the story along as we get to see the characters’ real hopes and dreams and personalities. Take, for example, Henri’s tentative rendition of I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise on the stage of a Paris nightclub, which segues into a glorious fantasy performance with glittery silver-clad ladies and men in tails. Or how he’s joined in his dream dance by composer Adam (“it’s my song”), who has lost his war-inflicted limp.
This seamlessness is, in part, down to Bob Crowley’s set design which allows the stage to transform constantly. At times he uses video projection to create Paris on stage, but this is more than a lazy short-cut: reflecting the fact that Jerry sees the city with an artist’s eye, the projection is animated with brushstrokes as the scene is painted in. And then – at the drop of a hat – the stage can be physically transformed into the bank of the Seine, or a ballet studio, or a suite at the Ritz.
Rhythm, music, laughter, comedy, dance, romance and artistry – who could ask for anything more?