NEW YORK – The best Broadway musical of the year is “An American in Paris,” a stage adaptation of the 1951 Vincent Minnelli film that starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron and featured not only George Gershwin’s brilliant 1928 tone poem to Paris, but classic Gershwin songs with lyrics by his brother Ira Gershwin.
The show is helmed by the English director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who has staged it like one elongated dance with a propulsive pace that never seems to lag. It’s at the Palace Theatre, corner of Seventh Avenue and 47th Street.
Mr. Wheeldon began his career as a dancer at the New York City Ballet, and he has gone on to choreograph ballet around the world. He recently progressed to do longer works like “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which I saw in New York last fall, and “Winter’s Tale” at Britain’s Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada.
In “An American in Paris,” he integrates the film’s basic story with classical ballet and Broadway dance numbers, which under Mr. Wheeldon’s impeccable way with movement shows us a new kind of sophisticated theatrical brilliance.
Mr. Wheeldon sets the show not in 1951 but in 1945, right after the World War II armistice, when the city of Paris was still freshly recovering from the war, economic woes and emotional ordeals. We meet the American ex-G.I. Jerry Mulligan, whom Gene Kelly played in the film. Here he is played by Robert Fairchild, a star at the New York City Ballet, making his acting debut. Jerry is an aspiring painter and is still bedazzled by Paris. He meets a rich young American woman, Milo Davenport (Jill Paice), who wants to support his fledgling art career.
Soon he spots Lise (Leanne Cope) in a ballet class and promptly falls in love with her. Jerry finds out she is engaged to a French friend, the nightclub entertainer Henri Baurel (Max Von Essen). There is also a third male character, Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz), a composer representing, I guess, Gershwin, who is also smitten with Lise. In the film, Adam’s character was played by the sardonic comic actor Oscar Levant.
So the “An American in Paris” story is set up with a triangle of guys in Paris all enamored with Lise – how French, how romantic. This version’s screenplay, written by Craig Lucas, seems to have been cut to a skeletal minimum by Mr. Wheeldon, and it works perfectly in keeping this thin tale moving along.
Mr. Fairchild is just about ideal in the role of Jerry. He is tall, handsome and lanky in stance, with a period pompadour haircut. He also proves to be adept in comedy and strong in conveying the emotion of the story.
Ms. Cope is also from the ballet, Britain’s Royal Ballet, and like Mr. Fairchild, she is making her acting debut in the show. She has Ms. Caron’s short, dark hair and gamine looks, and is incandescent in the role. Although early in the show she has a shyness about her personality, it disappears as she grows into the character of Lise. Also like Mr. Fairchild, she is able to combine ballet technique with Broadway dance steps.
When Arthur Freed and Ira Gershwin were putting together the movie, there were two choices for the male lead: Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. They picked Gene Kelly because he could tap dance and they felt he would exude a more American flavor. Mr. Kelly certainly tapped up a storm in the film of “An American in Paris.”
But in the show, Mr. Wheeldon mostly uses what he knows – classical ballet or Broadway musical dance. Only once does he let the cast tap dance, in a dream sequence “I’ll Build a Stairway To Paradise,” when Henri turns his nightclub into a Ziegfeld-like nitery, giving Henri and Adam a chance to show off their inner-talented selves, singing and fiercely tapping with the show’s platoon of chorus dancers.
Most of Mr. Wheeldon’s choreographic talent is unique; Gershwin standards like “I’ve Got Rhythm” or “S’Wonderful” are new and fresh. Act Two’s “Fidgety Feet” shows us how a dance number can materialize from anywhere and turn into a dazzling winner. The show’s finale is a climactic 13-minute rendition of “An American in Paris,” in which Mr. Wheeldon creates a whole new ballet to Mr. Gershwin’s classic music.
Designer Bob Crowley paints a panorama of Paris that seems to float in and out all over the Palace Theater’s stage. His costumes, whether Paris streetwear or couture, are colorfully right for the show’s 1940s period. Natasha Katz’s lighting design creates that special luminescence that envelops everything in Paris.
“An American in Paris” is a special treat. It has great Gershwin music, the polished artistry of Christopher Wheeldon and a romantic story.
It’s a trip to another world and another time.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.