02 August 2015

'An American in Paris'

[My play report on the current Broadway première of An American in Paris, the stage adaptation of the 1951 MGM movie, is considerably longer than my habitual reports.  The extra length—nearly half the post—is attributable to the review survey I always include at the end.  An American in Paris attracted so much press attention when it came to New York City, more outlets covered it than I usually find on the ‘Net.  Rather than reduce the selection or trim the quotations, I decided to let the reporting of the critical reception go over my self-imposed maximum length.  Though I don’t endorse it, ROTters may chose to leave off after my performance evaluation.  I recommend you stay with the report and see what the published reviewers had to say about this attention-grabbing musical.  ~Rick]

I don’t seem to get to Broadway often anymore.  I used to, but before On the Town, which I saw at the end of June and reported about on ROT on 18 July, I hadn’t been to a Broadway show since last September (and that was a treat for my mother who’d come to New York City for a visit).  Mostly this is because of the ticket price: for the regular cost of a Broadway seat, I can see three Off-Broadway plays or more.  Further, too many of the shows on offer in the Theatre District lately are retreads of one kind or another, either revivals (On the Town, On the Twentieth Century, The King and I), movical adaptations (Kinky Boots, Once, Gigi), jukebox musicals built around some famous songwriter’s or popular group’s catalogue (Beautiful, Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia!), or eternally-running blockbusters (Phantom, 11,439 performances as of 26 July; Chicago, 7,765 performances; Wicked, 4,892 performances) that have been around so long that even if I haven’t seen them, I feel like I have.  But on Thursday, 9 July, I went up to the Palace Theatre on 7th Avenue and 47th Street, my second visit to Times Square in 12 days, for the 7 p.m. show of An American in Paris—the show’s 100th performance.  The reason this time was a trip to New York by my cousin Andy and her husband Robert who’d come up from Maryland for a friend’s (theirs but not mine) family event.  They’d decided to get seats for American the night before the big do and asked if I’d like to join them.  So I did!

The current two-hour-and-thirty-five-minute, one-intermission Broadway movical is based on the 1951 MGM motion picture directed by Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me in St. LouisFather of the BrideBells Are RingingOn a Clear Day You Can See Forever) from a screenplay written by Alan Jay Lerner (Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Camelot), with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin.  (George Gershwin had died in 1937 at 38 so the movie’s score wasn’t original, but a pastiche of older Gershwin songs, culminating with the “American in Paris” ballet.) The star and choreographer of the movie is Gene Kelly (who played Jerry Mulligan, the American painter and ex-GI whose story the film tells) and the featured cast includes Oscar Levant (Adam Cook, the aspiring concert pianist who becomes Jerry’s friend) and Leslie Caron (Lise Bouvier, a young shop girl with whom Jerry falls in love).  Also appearing are Georges Guétary as Henri Baurel, a popular French night club singer who’s also in love with Lise, and Nina Foch as the wealthy “art patron,” Milo Roberts, who takes more than a professional interest in Jerry.  (I won’t synopsize the movie’s plot because, first, it’s easy to look up, and, second, the stage musical’s story differs significantly from the film’s.  As you’ll soon see, several of the characters’ names were also changed.) 

The movie itself was based on what George Gershwin described as an extended tone poem.  He originally composed the jazz-influenced American in Paris in 1928 on commission from the New York Philharmonic.  The 20-minute composition was inspired by Gershwin’s time in Paris in 1925; he returned to the City of Light in 1928 for a longer stay and wrote An American in Paris there.  “My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere,” wrote Gershwin in the program note on which he collaborated with critic and composer Deems Taylor for the concert piece’s début.  Gershwin’s symphonic poem premièred at Carnegie Hall on 13 December 1928 with the NYP directed by Walter Damrosch (for whose family Damrosch Park on the campus of Lincoln Center is named).  The idea for the film of An American in Paris came to producer Arthur Freed (Babes in Arms, Girl Crazy, Singin’ in the Rain, Gigi) after a Hollywood Bowl performance of Gershwin’s symphonic composition in around 1947.  Freed liked the title and, after three years of negotiations with George’s estate and brother Ira, he built a musical from the symphonic poem with other Gershwin tunes.  The 16‑minute “American in Paris” ballet that ends the film is based on the 1928 composition.

In 2008, Houston’s Alley Theatre premièred a stage adaptation of An American in Paris by playwright Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor), directed by the Alley’s artistic director, Gregory Boyd, with choreography by Randy Skinner.  The Houston version starred Harry Groener (Crazy For You; Harrigan ’n Hart) and Kerry O’Malley but seems to have gone no further than its début.  In 2014, another stage version  premièred at the 150-year-old Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, which, like its predecessor, used the score of the movie plus several Gershwin songs from other sources.  (Since the movie’s essentially a juke-box musical, so are its derived stage versions.  For discussions of “The Jukebox Musical” and “Movicals,” see ROT postings by Kirk Woodward on 7 October 2011 and by me on 20 September 2013; a compilation of further articles on movicals from Playbill and the Washington Post appeared as “More on Movicals” on 21 February 2014.)  The Paris première ran from November to January 2015, then transferred to Broadway, with previews at the Palace beginning on 13 March 2015 and the press opening on 12 April.  Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, the new adaptation was written by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, The Light in the Piazza) and designed by Bob Crowley (Mary PoppinsThe History Boys, The Coast of Utopia).  In 2015, the Broadway staging of An American in Paris won musical Tonys for best choreography, best lighting design (Natasha Katz), best orchestrations (Christopher Austin, Don Sebesky, and Bill Elliot), and best scenic design (Crowley and 59 Productions); the movical also won the Drama League Award for Outstanding Production of a Musical and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Broadway Musical.  There were numerous nominations and other awards as well. 

Broadway’s Palace Theatre, opened in 1913, is the famed vaudeville house featured in the ubiquitous phrase, “playing the Palace.”  (An allusion even made it into the lyrics of “Very Soft Shoes” from 1959’s Once Upon a Mattress, which is set in 1428: “In the days when my dear father played the palace / Back in 1392.”)  Major headliners appeared at the legendary house until 1932, when it converted to movies.  In 1936, the producers at the 1743-seat Palace began presenting live shows with the films, an attempt to revive vaudeville that lasted until 1957.  The shows, headlined by star artists like Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, were successes, but vaudeville was beyond resuscitation and the Palace reverted to movies‑only again.  The Nederlander Organization, second-largest owners of Broadway houses, bought the theater in 1965 and it opened the following year as a legitimate theater, still showing movies between bookings.  (In 1990, a 45-story hotel, now called the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel, opened above the Palace.  The hotel building and dozens of billboards obscure all of the historic theater’s façade except the marquee.)

The Broadway movical of An American in Paris is the romantic story of a young American former GI and struggling painter, Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild); a piano-player and incipient composer, Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz); a Parisian fabric-manufacturing heir who wants to be a nightclub singer, Henri Baurel (Max von Essen); a beautiful French ballerina, Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope), with whom all three friends are in love; and the fabled European city in which they all live, each yearning for a new start in the aftermath of World War II.  (The play’s set in 1945, right after the liberation of Paris and the Nazis’ retreat from the city in August, instead of the movie’s 1950, when it was filmed.)  Wheeldon and Lucas have let a shadow of the German occupation hang over the City of Light, as in the opening wordless ballet, to “Concerto in F,” when Jerry witnesses a woman wearing an armband and with her head shaved—the marks of an exposed Nazi collaborator—chased down and beaten in the streets.  Jerry’s stayed behind in Paris when his unit is shipped back to the States and meets Adam, who did the same thing (except that he bears a combat leg injury), when he steps into a bistro.  The play’s narrator is Adam (in the film, this task was performed by Kelly’s Jerry), who wants to be a serious composer (in fact, he’s a romanticized version of George Gershwin transported two decades down the road) but plays piano at a cabaret.  That’s where he met Henri, the scion of a wealthy and socially prominent family who Adam tells Jerry are the Fords of the fabric industry in France.  But Henri wants to be a cabaret singer-dancer and that’s where Adam came in: he’s writing songs for Henri and coaching him in his performing style for his début.  They treat Jerry to a run-through of “I Got Rhythm,” which Adam plays at a painfully somber and dirge-like tempo until Henri makes him lighten it up.  (Adam may be George Gershwin, but he’s got a touch of Edwin Booth’s melancholy.)  Henri has told Adam that he’s in love and is working up the nerve to propose to his beloved, but he’s never told his friend who the girl is.  (That’s the plot-thickener.)

Adam has another paying gig: he’s the rehearsal accompanist for a ballet company and he takes Jerry along to a reception at the rehearsal studio.  There, Adam conceives a crush on a pretty young dancer, Lise, whom we (but not he) soon discover is Henri’s intended.  Jerry, who’s begun sketching the dancers (shades of Edgar Degas, the subject of another new, Paris-set musical, Little Dancer, inspired by Degas’s famous sculpture Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, wending its way to Broadway) and falls in love with Lise, too.  Lise, who seems to be flirting with Adam, returns Jerry’s affections but wants to remain loyal to Henri to whom she’s indebted.  (Spoiler Alert: We find out much later that Lise’s family is Jewish and was hunted by the Nazis during the occupation of France.  Henri, who we also learn near the end of the play fought with the Résistance, and his wealthy family risked everything during the war to hide Lise, whose family didn’t survive the Holocaust.)  Henri, of course, is also at the reception because his parents (Veanne Cox, Scott Willis) are patrons of the company.  So we now have three men all in love with the same woman and none of them knows about the others.  (Like I said: plot-thickener.)  

Just to be sure there are other complications to prevent the course of true love from running smooth, there are some monkey wrenches in the works.  First, another visitor to the ballet studio is Milo Davenport (Jill Paice), an American heiress who’s not averse to throwing her money around to get what she wants.  She announces a large donation to the ballet company on the condition that the choreographer (Victor J. Wisehart) and the impresario (Rebecca Eichenberger) commission Adam to compose a short ballet (An American in Paris, do you suppose?) for Lise, to be designed by Jerry.  (Doesn’t that all work out neatly?)  There’s a bit of resistance on the point of Jerry as the designer because the maestro has his own stable of scenic artists—but Milo ultimately wins him over.  It’s clear that Milo has . . . umm, designs of her own on Jerry—she even invites him to a party (to meet some influential art people—that old line) at which he turns out to be the only hors d’oeuvre . . . sorry, I mean ‘guest.’

The second complication is that Henri has never told his socially conservative parents that he doesn’t want to go into the family textile business, but intends to become—zut, alors!—a nightclub song-and-dance man.  He plans to marry Lise (if he can ever work up the nerve to ask her) and go to New York ostensibly as the company’s U.S. representative, but really to make his début as a cabaret performer.  (He dreams of a performance at Radio City Music Hall, which is the carrot Adam holds out to him whenever he falters.  In the middle of his Paris coming-out, he fantasizes an elaborate production number—“I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”—with Rockette-like back-up dancers and a set with flashing lights that resembles the crown of the Chrysler Building.)  What starts out to look like a misguided dream, with Henri stumbling and hesitating from stage fright, ends up with his wowing the little cabaret audience—which, unbeknownst to him, includes his parents.  Madame Baurel is at first aghast that her son would make a public spectacle of himself this way, but Monsieur Baurel clasps his son’s shoulders in pride and surprise: who knew a son of his had such talent?  It would be wasted in the fabric business!  (My own dad said something very similar to me once after a performance—for all the good it did me in the end!  Ah, well.  Life may be a cabaret, but it isn’t a musical comedy.) 

Since the play’s plot generally parallels that of the film, it’s not spilling any surprises to say that Adam sees that Lise loves Jerry and not him—and he takes the realization as a private inspiration to write significant music with his image of Lise as his muse.  Henri also realizes that Lise loves Jerry and though she’s ready to go off to the States with him as promised, he releases her to make the right choice for her.  (There’s also a confusing and unexplored suggestion in the new book that Henri is gay—but as a plot element, it never goes anywhere.)  An American in Paris concludes with a slightly bittersweet ending, but not a terribly surprising one, since we know pretty much from the start who loves whom—and this isn’t a “musical tragedy,” after all.  The film famously ends with the magnificent “An American in Paris” ballet, which is reconceived here for the stage (except that it’s a company number rather than a pas-de-deux between Jerry and Lise).  After the ballet, the movie ends wordlessly—no dialogue or singing for the final 20 minutes—a groundbreaking cinematic experiment; but the stage adaptation sticks around for one more number, a rendition by Adam, Jerry, and Henri of Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”—their musical expression of “We’ll always have Paris”—from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie Shall We Dance (1937). 

Overall, the show was enjoyable (like my evening at On the Town, it rained again, but not until we left the theater—and even then is stopped quickly)—but American’s not as good a play as On the Town.  Craig Lucas’s book is very weak and there are lots and lots of inserted songs (“I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” from Shall We Dance; “Who Cares” from Of Thee I Sing, a 1931 Gershwin play), so many—nine at my count—it’s hardly still An American in Paris any more!  Some of the “new” songs don’t really seem to fit, like when Jerry decides, for no apparent reason, to call Lise “Liza” (cyber reviewer Zachary Stewart compared him to “a particularly aggressive Ellis Island immigration officer” renaming a new arrival)—it never comes up again—just so he can sing “Liza” from the Gershwins’ 1920 stage musical, Show Girl.  (Six songs from the film were dropped for the movical as well.)  

The lead actor-dancer, Robert Fairchild, though he’s very good, is no Gene Kelly.  Kelly dominates the screen in the film version—it’s unquestionably his move (he shares On the Town with Frank Sinatra, but between the two of them they eclipse the third sailor—though not necessarily the women)—but Fairchild is just a good actor-dancer, nowhere near as dynamic as Kelly (and who could be, after all).  While Fairchild is lithe and graceful as a dancer, Kelly was physical and masculine.  The book doesn’t help him: it shares the focus among the three men too evenly; in the film, Oscar Levant’s Adam is clearly a side-kick and I didn’t even remember who plays Henri until I looked it up.  Not only is the stage version of American not Fairchild’s play, it’s not even Jerry Mulligan’s. 

Let’s back up and look at the production’s elements separately.  As I said, Lucas’s libretto doesn’t stand up so well, and he’s added plot and character details that I assume were intended to fill out a sketchy story in the film but which end up just complicating the plot rather than giving it heft.  For example, he’s made a minor plot element that Adam is Jewish (which isn’t mentioned in the screenplay even though Oscar Levant, whose character was named Adam Cook, not Adam Hochberg as in the play, was himself born into an Orthodox Jewish family), though it has little bearing on the drama.  Lise’s Jewish background, because it’s the backstory of her debt to Henri and his family, is more significant but still of only small impact on the drama.  Alan Jay Lerner’s original screenplay, set in the 1950’s, was reportedly intended to put the movie distant enough from the actual war so that the story could omit much mention of it; Lucas’s resetting the story to 1945, right after the liberation of Paris, makes it almost imperative that the war be a presence in the lives of the city and its inhabitants.  But it seems perfunctory to me, obligatory references rather than true character motivations or plot drivers.  (It’s interesting that Arthur Freed’s original idea for the movie was to set it in the 1920’s, when George Gershwin wrote the symphonic composition which inspired Freed, after World War I but a decade and more before the second 20th-century war with Germany.) 

Adam’s role in the play is built up in comparison to the film, as is Henri’s, so that the three men who love Lise share nearly equal prominence.  This prevents the play from focusing in one lover, as did the movie, dissipating the dramatic impact of Jerry’s romance and pursuit of Lise on stage.  The movie focuses nearly laser-like on that romance: Adam’s not a suitor for Lise and Henri is little more than an impediment for Jerry, like Milo, not a serious rival.  Adam’s and Lise’s faith is of little dramatic consequence, nor is the fact that Lise was in danger during the war or how she escaped.  There’s no exploration in the movie of why the Baurels behave so circumspectly, even after the Nazis have left, and returning all that to prominence in Lucas’s script does nothing to the heart of the story except distract from its importance to the narrative.  It’s a case of reality interfering with drama—it’s plain TMI.  This is not a historical drama; it’s a romance, a fantasy, a dream.

As director, Wheeldon doesn’t help Lucas much, never getting close to covering over the script’s inadequacies.  (Since the stage adaptation of An American in Paris was Wheeldon’s idea to start with, I assume he had some say in how Lucas approached the book.)  American is Wheeldon’s first directing gig; his career till now has been as a choreographer, including for the Royal Ballet and the New York City Ballet.  His two principal performers, too, are from the dance world, and this all shows in the staging of the Broadway movical.  The acting, which is all technically fine, never sparkled; the two actors who came closest to breaking out are both stage vets with plenty of Broadway and regional creds.  (They also had the most interestingly-written characters.)  The others mostly faded into the stage until the songs and dances came along.

As choreographer, obviously Wheeldon’s wheelhouse, he made a far better showing.  Of course, it’s hard not to be inspired by the music of George Gershwin, whose tunes still set people’s feet to tapping even almost 80 years after his death.  (It’s a tad ironic that one of the songs Wheeldon inserted into the play’s score is “Fidgety Feet” from the 1926 musical Oh, Kay!  In the stage version, the invited audience at an impossibly staid avant-garde ballet of The Eclipse of Uranus—think a Western version of Noh—begin to be unable to sit still as their legs insist on boogying while sitting down.  It’s a musical paean to restless leg syndrome!)  But once the performers get up on their feet and hit their marks, the show sparks up tremendously.  Wheeldon’s dances are charming, witty, sparkling, and fun.  Dancers Fairchild and Cope (with both of whose companies Wheeldon has worked) let loose their reserve and kick up a storm, even in the slower, more romantic numbers.  They do less well, especially Cope, in the singing department, but their dancing is, if not spectacular, certainly first-rate.  (Fairchild, as I said, may not measure up to Gene Kelly, but Cope makes a better rival to Leslie Caron, both making their non-ballet débuts.)  Since An American in Paris is still a show about dancing—Elyse Sommer of CurtainUp called the production a “dansical,” and many of Lucas’s script enhancements increase the importance of dance in the plot—this aspect of the production goes a long way in explaining the movical’s audience appeal.  (Note, too, that American’s principal Tony win was for Wheeldon’s choreography.)

The set (Crowley), including the projections (59 Productions); period-evoking costumes (Crowley); and romantic lighting (Natasha Katz) all contributed strongly to the play’s post-occupation atmosphere and feel.  Crowley’s sets were largely open to accommodate the dancing, using only a few important set pieces to suggest locations.  (Like most movies, An American in Paris moved around much more than stage plays customarily do, so Crowley gave us hints rather than fully constructed sets.)  One exception was the dream song-and-dance Henri performs in “Stairway”; the boîte itself is simple and inelegant, but Henri conjures up a full Radio City set for his fantasy.  The Baurels’ sumptuous home, decorated with many framed paintings, is outlined by mobile baroque-style window frames (to allow for changing perspectives as the scenes shifts) to which are attached various-shaped and -sized empty picture frames.  Milo’s modern apartment is indicated with a luxurious sofa-pit, an elegant liquor cart and fragmentary walls decorated with starkly modern art.  (Abstract painting, which arrived on the art scene before World War I, flourished in the U.S. during World War II, while the Nazis suppressed it in Europe as “degenerate.”  After WWII, with the prohibition lifted, the art style blossomed again in western Europe.  Ironically, the movie drew on the imagery of French Impressionism and Post-impressionism as the motif for much of its scenic look, a hangover from the original plan to set the film in the 1920s.)  Crowley’s palette, particularly in his costumes, instead of the bright, blaring technicolor hues of the 1950’s film, is muted and down-toned to evoke a Europe just returning to a world of color after “four years [during which] the City of Light went dark,” as Adam says.  59 Productions’ slides and videos, complimented by Katz’s lighting, which depict a sophisticated Paris dreamscape (much like Beowulf Boritt’s fantasy New York in On the Town, though in a different style), are more than just lovely.  I took particular note of the recurring image of boats floating on the Seine as seen from one of the bridges over the river; the perspective was impressionistic and striking. 

In the realm of performance, the two standout actors are Jill Paice as Milo Davenport and Brandon Uranowitz as Adam Hochberg.  Both had more to work with as Lucas’s script made Milo and Adam the more eccentric figures in the play.  In Paice’s hands, Milo’s rapaciousness comes close to cliché, but the actress pulls it off cleanly and committedly enough to make the character a full-blooded narcissist but not a travesty.  (Paice’s bio includes both musical and straight plays.)  Unfortunately for both Paice and the play, Milo doesn’t get much resistance off of which to play.  In the movie, Jerry tries at first to rebuff Milo’s efforts to coopt him, but on stage, he hooks up with her more readily until the end, even while he pursues Lise.  This leaves Paice standing in the ring unopposed so that her determination is often wasted.  This, of course, isn’t Paice’s fault, but Lucas’s, Wheeldon’s, and Fairchild’s.

Uranowitz, whom I saw as Arnold in a Washington, D.C., revival of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (see my ROT report on 5 October 2013), makes the most of the enhanced Adam Lucas provides.  Making Adam a third suitor for Lise’s attentions is dramatically unnecessary, but while Oscar Levant was largely on the sidelines (except for his piano playing and his sharp, witty tongue), the movical’s Adam is more present between being a major character and the story’s narrator, and Uranowitz creates for him a complex and sardonic persona—even as he has to deliver some of what USA Today’s reviewer called “Lucas’s hokier lines.”  I wish his Adam had more of Levant’s acid wit, but I suspect that was largely ad‑libbed on the soundstage, or contributed to the screenplay by Levant himself.  (Levant was as well known in his day for that attribute, on screen and off, as he was for his piano-playing.  Ironically, Uranowitz’s Adam even makes a direct comparison of himself with Levant in one scene.)  One question I had from Torch Song, by the way, was answered by Uranowitz’s work in American: his characterizations are not built around actorly tics and mannerisms: he invents his stage behavior fresh for each part.  (The actor does still have his mop of “ridiculously thick hair,” as I quoted in my Torch Song report.) 

The couple at the center of An American in Paris, Robert Fairchild’s Jerry and Leanne Cope’s Lise, have little chemistry or magnetism in the dialogue scenes.  The best suggestion Fairchild’s Jerry makes is pleading with Lise to “dance with me,” for as dance partners, the principal dancer from the New York City Ballet and the First Artist with England’s Royal Ballet work excellently together.  They seem to have been cast for their terpsichorean skills and not their acting talent, and Fairchild (whose sister, Megan Fairchild, is also a principle dancer with NYCB—and stars as Ivy Smith in the Broadway revival of On the Town) has a passable singing voice for musical theater.  (In the movie, Caron’s Lise isn’t a ballet dancer, just a salesgirl in a perfume shop.  Lucas and Wheeldon have made the stage version a dancer so that, like Ivy in On the Town—also a dance student—she can be cast with a dancer.  In the movical, Lise works at Galeries Lafayette on the side.)  As actors, however, neither one makes a strong impression.  (Megan Fairchild delighted audiences and most reviewers in her theater début in On the Town, a lagniappe for musical theater enthusiasts—among whom I count myself—but her brother and Cope don’t reach her level as actors or even singers.  Lightning only strikes once in a Broadway season, it seems.)  Jerry should be a magnetic personality, a bold artist and a nearly irresistible romantic figure—at least that’s what Gene Kelly made of him—but Fairchild is just a good dancer and a competent singer.

Cope, who has the gamine quality—her pixie bob doesn’t hurt—for which Leslie Caron was so well known (she later played Gigi in the 1958 Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe movie), is a meagre presence except when she’s dancing.  Her voice, both speaking and singing, is weak, and her characterization is wan.  It’s hard to imagine that she’d get not one, not two, but three men to fall desperately in love with her with so little provocation.  (She kisses Adam twice on the cheek—okay, both cheeks, but she’s French—and bam! he’s a goner.  She’s kind and respectful of Henri, but he’s ready to give up his family and run off to New York with her for love.)  Since the men’s romantic focus on Lise (and the complications that ensue) is the engine that powers this play, these pale relationships leave, if not a hole, then a big pit right in the center of the production. 

Max von Essen’s Henri, whose part has also been built up from the screenplay, is little more than a plot device, an excuse for Lise to vacillate between potential lovers.  (He’s made out to be a former Résistance fighter who saved not only Lise from the Nazis but others as well, and Lucas has made Henri a novice song-and-dance man wannabe rather than the successful entertainer of the film, just to give him more complexities—stage fright, fear of his parents’ reaction, secretiveness—to work with.)  The actor does perfectly well by the character, but Henri’s still pretty much a cypher as a dramatic figure.  Von Essen’s Henri has trouble working up the passion to propose to Lise, behaving more like a sitcom adolescent than a man in love, but then explodes in response to Jerry’s hints that Henri was a coward during the occupation, revealing the secret of his wartime service.  Though he dances well enough—his Henri is sort of a Gallic Fred Astaire, top hat and cane included—he had the best Broadway singing voice and style of the entire cast and he’s a better actor than Fairchild and Cope, making Henri a charming, if insecure, figure.  That’s not enough to compensate for the fact that the character’s a lightweight. 

An American in Paris was such a big event on Broadway that the press coverage was tremendous.  Most were far more enthusiastic than I’ve been.  “The city of light is ablaze with movement in the rhapsodic new stage adaptation of ’An American in Paris,’” declared the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood, characterizing the show as a “gorgeously danced—and just plain gorgeous—production.”  In a “marriage of music and movement,” the show is a “tribute . . . to cherished notions about romance that have been a defining element of the American musical theater . . .,” said the Timesman.  “Just about everything in this happily dance-drunk show moves with a spring in its step as if the newly liberated Paris after World War II were an enchanted place in which the laws of gravity no longer applied.  Even the elegant buildings on the grand boulevards appear to take flight.”  The production “is very much a traditional Broadway musical,” with a new book “that amplifies the movie’s thin story line, mostly to witty and vivifying effect.”  (He did, though, label much of the amplification as “hokum” and added that the new book gets “a little jambon-handed.”)  Isherwood thought that the principal performers “also sing (quite well) and deliver dialogue (more than quite well).”  In a hat-tip to designer Crowley (and, by implication the projection-creators at 59 Productions), the Times reviewer reported that “the musical is as rich a visual feast as it is a musical one.”  In the end, however, Isherwood felt that the new movical generated such “exhilarating brio that you may find your own feet fidgeting under your seat before it’s over, and your heart alight with a longing to be swept up in the dance.”

In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz pronounced the movical a “beautiful ballet-happy show” and “richly satisfying,” placing the credit squarely on the shoulders of director-choreographer Wheeldon, who “shows a vibrant vision and buckets of imagination.”  During some of the book scenes, Dziemianowicz “nitpicked,” “Occasionally the show stubs its toes on corny jokes and book scenes that could use a bit more finesse.”  The New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli called American an “airy, gentle caress of a show” which “is often swooningly beautiful.”  The Post reviewer added, however, “The downside of this elegance is that when the production needs pep and razzmatazz, it’s in short supply.”  Like Dziemianowicz in the News, Vincentelli also found some of Lucas’s plot enhancements “heavy-handed.” 

“From the first moments of ‘An American Paris,’ two things are clear . .  . .   First, it is far more than just another Broadway remake of a Hollywood movie,” declared Newsday’s Linda Winer in the first paragraph of her notice.  “And the ballet world’s choreographer Christopher Wheeldon . . . has made something special.”  The Long Island reviewer continued: “Just how extraordinary is unspooled all evening with exuberant, sweeping innovation, dark historical understanding and a big, smart heart.”  In am New York, Matt Windman affirmed that American has “intricate ballet sequences” by Wheeldon, “exceptional music supervision ” by Rob Fisher, “a dazzling design scheme” by Crowley, and “an unusually somber book” by Lucas.  “Though heavy-handed and drawn out,” complained Windman of Lucas’s new book, “he deserves credit for trying to add depth to the film.”  Regardless, the amny man reported that “the visuals are innovative and the performances are top-rate.”

Elysa Gardner of USA Today, giving the movical 3½ out of four stars, wrote that it’s “a show that looks and sounds sumptuous throughout,” heaping praise on Wheeldon, Lucas, Crowley, Fisher, and Fairchild, even though the “show’s tone can be darker and heavier than that of the film’s.”  The production, Gardner averred, “fares best when its talented cast is singing and dancing,” which she pointed out is often, and she doubled down by stating, “The ballet sequences . . . are the soaring high points.”  Gardner concluded that American on stage is “a dazzling achievement in its own right.”  The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout effused about Wheeldon’s theatrical début, gushing, “This is what musical-comedy dance can look like when it’s made by a choreographer who knows how to do more than just stage a song.  Once you’ve seen it, you’ll know what you’ve been missing, and find it hard ever again to settle for less.”  Of Lucas’s book, Teachout noted that the book-writer “has added a sometimes heavy-handed but mostly welcome touch of grit.”  Overall, especially with the contributions of Crowley and dancers Fairchild (“an unbelievable find”) and Cope (“deliciously sly charm”), the WSJ review-writer summed American up: “It is, first and foremost, an old-fashioned, big-hearted spare-no-expense Broadway romance.  That it is also a masterpiece of theatrical dance is sweet icing on an already tasty cake.” 

In the only weekly that ran an on-line review (i.e., no Village Voice, inexplicably), the New York Observer’s Rex Reed quipped: “It had to happen.  With stage adaptations of two classic movie musicals opening on Broadway in one week—both based on masterpieces by Vincente Minnelli from the golden years of MGM, both set in Paris with screenplays by the great Alan Jay Lerner, and both starring the young Leslie Caron—attention must be paid.”  The Observer reviewer continued, however: “Except for one life-saving exception, both turn out to be bland, uninspired disappointments, so don’t be surprised if attention also wanes.”  (A revival of Gigi, the other movical Reed means, opened at the Neil Simon Theatre on 8 April and closed on 21 June after only 86 official performances.)  The saving grace, Reed reveals, “is the magical star-making Broadway debut of the dazzling dancer Robert Fairchild.”  The Observinator warned, “If you’re going to turn unforgettable movies into dull stage shows, comparisons are odious but inevitable.”  After dismissing Gigi, Reed went after An American in Paris: “Craig Lucas’ dreary ‘updating’ of Alan Jay Lerner’s perfect screenplay,” the reviewer declared, is “cheapened by awkward character twists and banal dialogue” including “a tiresome array of postwar jokes about Vichy, Nazis and swastikas.”  Furthermore, Reed complained, the movical’s creators “deleted the best songs and substituted tunes from other Gershwin shows where they do not fit.”  After having trashed Gigi, Reed dismissed American as well: “There’s no charm, no joy, and I didn’t care about any of” the characters.  Except, Reed insisted, for Fairchild, “the most magical discovery since Gene Kelly” débuted in Broadway’s Pal Joey.  “There is no chemistry between him and Leanne Cope’s Lise,” the Observer review-writer lamented, “but even when he isn’t dancing, you can’t take your eyes off” his movements. 

“The movie . . . can feel like a rented room; there’s plenty of space for someone else to move in, to make it deeper, better, more accomplished.”  That’s how Jeff Seroy of The Paris Review feels about the film original of An American in Paris; of the stage version, Seroy averred, “That’s what the new musical on Broadway attempts, and—though not without its longueurs and contrivances—on many levels it has the film beat by a mile.”  On top of the plot development, the Paris reviewer added that “the real news about the musical is the choreography and dancing.”  Seroy dismissed the jazz dancing as “merely acceptable,” but wrote of the ballet numbers: “ooh-la-la!  Robert Fairchild (Jerry) and Leanne Cope (Lise) are astonishing, and the chemistry between them is utterly believable.”  The “American in Paris” ballet itself, he affirmed, “is a major coup de théâtre.”  “On the whole, Wheeldon’s ‘American in Paris’ is tasteful, witty, sophisticated, decent-hearted—even lovely, often—and a little mild, a little pale,” said Joan Acocella in the New Yorker.  Wheeldon (and, by implication, Lucas), wrote Acocella, “gives us a more noir picture” of post-war Paris than Lerner, Minnelli, and Kelly did in the film, “adding sorrow to the story” even as he’s “given it clarity.”  She concluded that the movical “is not so much something as a meditation on something.”  

In New York magazine, Jesse Green stated, “With its odd combination of dour outlook and joyful movement,” the Broadway adaptation of American is “a Broadway unicorn.”  Right from the quiet, dance-less, music-less opening, Green insisted, American shows its “intention to distinguish itself in tone and pace, and in the way it conveys information, from other musical comedies.  In that, it completely succeeds.”  But, the man from New York continued, whether the effort does “justice to the underlying material—or, more important, at making a coherent stage entertainment—is another matter.”  Green reported that “when An American in Paris is on its feet, it’s often sublime,” but he went on, “As for the more traditional musical-comedy numbers, all are well danced”; nonetheless, “the stage musical has fallen into some of the same structural traps” that Green identified in the film.  The actors playing the principal characters, the New York reviewer observed, “work very hard . . . to make believable figures from roles that seem like collections of symptoms with no unifying principle.”  Green, however, had praise for the physical production: “Nothing on Broadway right now looks like it, either, with its saturated primary-color light (by Natasha Katz) and with settings (by Bob Crowley) that seem to evaporate and reconfigure themselves second by second, as quick as Jerry’s sketches.  (The projections are beautiful.)  And . . . the music as a whole . . . is beautifully proportioned and arranged.”  In the end, though, Green confessed, “I rarely wish for bigger helpings of American vulgarity, but I left An American in Paris wondering whether it could more effectively have blown away all those clouds of gray (if not the Nazis) with a kinky boot or a confetti cannon.” 

In Variety, Marilyn Stasio declared that “there is beaucoup beauty in director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s ravishing production of ‘An American in Paris,’ smartly but not slavishly adapted by Craig Lucas from the 1951 MGM movie.”  “This is one of the most ballet-centric dance shows ever seen on Broadway,” Stasio added, and then gushed, “It’s hard to breathe during the dreamy, 14-minute ballet that brings the show to a close . . . —not only because the love story is so romantic, but because we rarely see this kind of dancing on Broadway and it’s hard to let it go.”  Overall, the Variety reviewer described this American as an “unorthodox transformation of a bright and cheerful All-American musical into an enchanting but more reflective and deeply moving experience.”  David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter, describing American as “a breathtakingly fresh musical . . . embodied in ecstatic, transporting movement,” declared that “ballet luminary Christopher Wheeldon [is] taking an exhilarating leap as director-choreographer with An American in Paris” and that Fairchild is “a triple-threat revelation . . . who proves himself more than capable of following in the suave footsteps of Gene Kelly.”  While caviling that some of Lucas’s “embellishments” to the book “at times seem over-complicated, and some of the songs feel shoehorned in,” Rooney felt that “that’s a small price to pay” because “an awkward transition or two can’t diminish the pleasures of a show that’s one long sustained swoon.”  Some of the added songs are “not all . . . perfect fits,” observed the HR review-writer, but “the performances are invariably a delight.”  He concluded that, “melancholy, droll and breezily uplifting by turns . . ., [e]ven with its imperfections, [American] is a thoroughly captivating musical.” 

Time Out New York’s David Cote reported, “There’s much gorgeous ballet to admire in” An American in Paris, “set against attractive, painterly backdrops . . ., but the overall effect is of a dance concert with a semiserious musical squeezed into the cracks.”  Librettist Lucas “concocts a story tinged by Nazi-occupation guilt and soldiers with PTSD,” said the man from TONY, and though the “leads are charming and the score’s divine, . . . mainly there’s middling singing and loads of dance.”  In his final analysis, Cote lamented, “Hollywood made it look so easy, but simple amour can be hard to translate .”  Melissa Rose Bernardo quipped that American is a “misty-eyed romance/travelogue that could practically sell transatlantic tickets on looks alone.”  Bernardo suggested that “a healthy interest in dance” helps viewers to “appreciate” the performance, because the dancing “packs more content, smarts, and finesse than practically all the book scenes put together.”  This is because Lucas’s “plodding, paint-by-numbers-style script is, regrettably, especially insufficient.”  Her last words on the production were: “Crowley creates as stunning a vision of [Paris] as you can imagine, bathed in a stunning array of blues, using jigsaw-like set pieces—combined with incredible projections by 59 Productions—to represent any number of places in war-ravaged Paris.  And Wheeldon’s ballets are positively transporting.  If only the team had followed lyricist Ira Gershwin’s advice—as Milo herself sings: ‘Dance whenever you can!’ [‘Shall We Dance?’ from the movie of the same title].”

The press coverage of the Broadway opening of An American in Paris was so broad that a couple of on-line publications ran two notices.  (In several instances, in both the cyber and paper press, there were also various other features on the production.  I didn’t survey either the out-of-town coverage of the production such as the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press, or the reviews of the Paris début which ran in many British papers and such other outlets as The Daily Beast and Opera News.)  The Huffington Post is one of those that covered American twice.  In his “First Nighter” column, David Finkle started out his review by declaring, “Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography for An American in Paris . . . is so spectacular that you have to forgive anything else wrong with the production”—after which he acknowledged that “there’s plenty to forgive--and I mean plenty.”  For one thing, Finkle noted that “you see this An American in Paris for the dancing.  You don’t see it for Craig Lucas’s libretto.”  As the HP first-nighter explained, Lucas does “what he so often does in his plays: Wax pretentious while believing he’s being deep substantive.”  While he praised all the individual elements of the production (save the book and the ill fit of some of the later-inserted songs), the HR reviewer dubbed American “mishandled,” about which Finkle seemed particularly exercised.  A week later, HP’s Isa Freeling posted a notice declaring American “a must-see.”  Lucas, said Freeling, “has adapted the story with great style and substance” and Crowley’s “beautiful costumes, along with Wheeldon’s poignant choreography . . . likewise lend atmosphere to the production.”  The second HR reviewer continued, “The play’s weakest moments are in some of the performances,” complaining mostly about some shaky French accents and Uranowitz’s “over-the-top” Jewish speech pattern.  “The most important thing missing, however, seemed to be sexuality and romance,” asserted Freeling.  “Wheeldon’s choreography is lovely,” she agreed, but it lacked this “crucial element.”

The other two-timer in cyberspace was the website Broadway World.  Reminding him of Jerome Robbins’s dynamic Broadway theater début with his “dramatic stage pictures and ravishing movements [which] swiftly and effectively reveal emotions that would require pages of dialogue,” Michael Dale wrote of An American in Paris, “It isn’t just the dancing that’s impressive; it’s how Wheeldon places the evening in a heightened reality that embraces a people’s desire to wake from a nightmare and get back to the business of artistic creation.”  Declaring, “An American In Paris is a thrilling addition to Broadway,” the BWW chief theater reviewer observed, “New York audiences have grown accustomed to seeing a ‘new Gershwin musical’ pop up every now and then,” adding, “Hopefully we’ll be seeing new Christopher Wheeldon musicals more frequently.”  A little over a week later, Dale’s colleague at BWW  from the dance world posted her assessment of American.  Wheeldon, wrote Mila Kraus-har, is “[k]nown for his contemporary, abstract choreography” which “ventured towards epic storytelling.”  But though “Uranowitz and von Essen hold greater Broadway credits and musical capacity,” Kraus-har found that “what came to mind . . ., were . . . Robert Fairchild’s conjuring of Kelly’s ghost and . . . Leanne Cope’s delicate emotional tension, yet no-holds barred physicality.”  Her overall assessment: “Kelly’s maxim proved true: if one has the talent to capture the attention of others, why not use that power to lift their spirits?  For his directorial debut, Wheeldon couldn’t ask for anything more.”

The rest of the cyber press was pretty much in line with the newsprint-and-ink gang.  On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer quipped of the stage production of the “jewel-studded” American, “It’s got rhythm . . . it’s got music . . . and it’s got superb dancers and colorful, eye-popping settings for them to strut their fleet-footed stuff.”  Then she doubled down: “Bottom line: It’s a Wow!”  Though Sommer found Lucas’s revised book merely “an okay attempt to add depth,” the CU reviewer declared that “the dancing . . . is sublime.  Add the lovely, ear-hugging Gershwin tunes . . ., the stunning stage craft and performances—and what you’ve got is a theatrical sweetshop filled to the brim with delectable eye and ear candy.”  Sommer had praise for the dancer-actors Fairchild and Cope, but she insisted that the show’s great distinctions are Wheeldon’s “dazzling story telling ballet scenes, and equally dazzling design work of set and costume wizard Bob Crowley.”  New York Theatre Guide’s Kathleen Campion labeled American “a dancer’s show” in which “the dancing matters more” than the acting and singing.  “The movement changes from . . . wartime dancing to a dizzying conflation of ‘then’ and ‘soon-to-be,’” continued the NYTG reviewer.  “The dances are progressively more sensual and stylish, sometimes right on the edge of gymnastic.”  In the end, Campion deemed An American in Paris “dazzling and noisy in the best sense of an American musical.  At the same time it puts a canny, majestic lift beneath the patter and pas de deux.”

On New York City Theatre, Nicola Quinn noted that Wheeldon “makes his brilliant directorial debut alongside his amazing choreography” in the stage adaptation of American and the “strength and talent of the company thrusts this production to its exceptional level of force.”  Affirming that the production “will leave you feeling inspired by love and hopeful of a better world” and awarding it “a five out of five stars,” Quinn summed up: “From set to song and every note played and performed, An American In Paris is simply, ‘magnifique’!”  Lamenting that “just as An American in Paris seems about to perform a grand jeté into something new and wonderful, it crashes awkwardly into the stultifying limits of the book-musical form,” Zachary Stewart of TheaterMania observed that nonetheless “the show is full of transcendent moments of music and dance.”  Stewart allowed, “The show is at its best when . . . director Christopher Wheeldon allows his brilliant choreography to tell the story.”  Suffering “from the chronic affliction of all jukebox musicals,” the TM review-writer complained that the show “grinds to a halt so the cast can deliver a sparkling rendition of a Gershwin tune that only vaguely relates to the plot.”  Despite praiseworthy “vibrant” sets and costumes, and “flawless” projections, “None of it quite makes up for a story that is more often confusing than it is enchanting”; Lucas’s book, Stewart wrote, “is teeming with dubious contrivance.”  Overall, Stewart felt, American’s “symphonic sound, hazy character sketches, and long stretches of fantasy all lend themselves better to dance—that’s why the show seems to come alive in the balletic passages.” 

Matthew Murray wrote on Talkin’ Broadway that the collision of “Wheeldon’s fantasy” of post-war Paris with “the harsh realities of life in Paris just after World War II,” though it “cannot salve all the ills of an evening that has been adapted, smartly if not always smoothly” from the 1951 movie, “it does set An American in Paris apart from the pack, and distinguish it as a classic, adult dance musical.”  With assistance from Crowley’s “excellent sets and costumes,” 59 Productions’ “both . . . earthbound and horizon-sweeping” projections, and Katz’s “gorgeous” lighting, Wheeldon, the “keen visual storyteller,” and Lucas, who “so nicely upped the stakes,” rendered the adaptation “immensely satisfying.”  With plaudits for the cast, Murray’s only real complaint was “with the songs”: “Wheeldon and Lucas,” Murray felt, “have turned out something so thoughtful, so serious, that too often . . . most of the numbers . . . feel like intrusions.”  Finally, though, the Broadway Talker conceded that “if An American in Paris fails as an integrated musical, it soars as choreography, and ought to be seen, admired, and appreciated as such.” 

TV and radio reviewers also got into the mix in larger numbers than usual, even for a Broadway première.  On New York’s WNBC (Channel 4), Robert Kahn reported that An American in Paris “doesn’t fare quite as well as ‘Gigi’—the story is comparatively listless” even though he found it’s “full of gorgeous ballet numbers.”  (As I reported earlier, the revived stage adaptation of Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi closed after only 86 regular performances and 20 previews.)  “‘An American in Paris,’” felt Kahn, “feels like a ballet with a narrative trying to make itself heard” because “the characters in Craig Lucas’s script aren’t developed enough to really endear themselves to the audience.”  Wheeldon, the WNBC reviewer averred, “works magic with near showstoppers . . ., but in many other places the dancing seems almost too much,” though Crowley’s set design “is magnificent.”  On NY1, the Time-Warner all-news channel for New York City cable subscribers, Roma Torre reported, “The dancing s’wonderful; the music s’marvelous; I was dazzled by the scenery, even if it was a little too busy.  But I didn’t feel the love.”  The NY1 reviewer said that “Lucas’s book gets bogged down with too many complicating subplots,” and “the high-tech scenery . . . doesn’t know when to quit and ultimately distracts from the delicate love story,” but asserted, “Wheeldon’s choreographed sequences paired with that luscious Gershwin score are the best thing about the show.”  Torre concluded, “On its toes, ‘An American In Paris’ is glorious.  But when the dancing stops, it falls disappointingly flat.”  On radio, reviewer Jennifer Vanasco of WNYC (a division of New York Public Radio) said that the stage adaption of An American in Paris “was definitely worth waiting for” because “nothing about ‘An American in Paris’ is merely standard.”  Praising the sets and projections that “evoke Paris not as it is, but as we all dream it to be,” Vanasco also acknowledged,There are a couple weak spots,” notably Fairchild’s singing voice, but noted that “they don’t matter” in this “ravishing production that will sweep you up in its arms.”  


  1. On Wednesday, 27 January, Time Warner Cable's NY1 news channel reported that legendary Hollywood actress Leslie Caron was in New York City recently to catch a few shows on Broadway--'An American in Paris' being one of them. NY1's Frank DiLella sat down with the performer and her on-stage counterpart, Leanne Cope, to chat about the Gershwin property that launched her career. The NY1 website has a video of the meeting at http://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/on-stage/2016/01/26/-an-american-in-paris--star-leslie-caron-visits-broadway-for-trip-down-memory-lane-.html.


  2. On 2 March 2016, the New York Times ran an article by Michael Cooper on a potential new discovery about the French taxi horns George Gershwin wrote into his original score for "An American in Paris," the 1928 tone poem which became the centerpiece of the 1951 Gene Kelly film 'An American in Paris' and Christopher Wheeldon's current Broadway movical derived from it (the subject of my report, above). Ever since 1945, when Arturo Toscanini recorded the composition with the NBC Orchestra and interpreted Gershwin's labels for the horns, circled letters A, B, C, and D, as the pitches to which he wanted them to be tuned, that's been the way "American" has been performed. But Mark Clague, an associate professor of musicology at the University of Michigan who is editing a critical edition of the works of George and Ira Gershwin, argues that the labels in Gershwin's score are only a way to designate which horns to play, not what notes they should sound. One piece of his evidence is a 1929 recording made under Gershwin's direction, so presumably the horns played the notes intended by the composer: A flat, B flat, a much higher D, and a lower A. (Gershwin had bought taxi horns for the piece while he was in Paris, but those have been lost.)

    The music world, including instrument rental outfits that supply the French taxi horns for "American," is not in agreement about the proposed change. (Some are even split within their own minds: Rob Fisher, who adapted the score and supervised the staging of the current Broadway adaptation of 'An American in Paris,' agreed that the letter labels were names and not pitches, but nonetheless used the traditional horns for the show. He's not even convinced that the notes on the 1929 recording are dispositive.)

    Cooper's New York Times report, headlined "Gershwin's ABC's Might Not Be What They Seem" in the print edition, is available on line (as "Have We Been Playing Gershwin Wrong for 70 Years?") at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/02/theater/have-we-been-playing-gershwin-wrong-for-70-years.html.


  3. In the "Arts, Briefly" column of the New York Times on 28 July 2016, Michael Paulson reported the following notice in an article entitled "'An American in Paris' To Close in October":

    “An American in Paris” is bidding adieu to Broadway earlier than expected.

    The musical, featuring songs by George and Ira Gershwin, had announced that it would close on Jan. 1, but on Tuesday the producers told the cast that it would instead close nearly three months earlier.

    “Although it was our intention to play through the end of the year, in reconsidering the current theatrical landscape, we decided it best to close our production of 'An American in Paris’ on Broadway on Oct. 9, 2016,” the producers Stuart Oken, Van Kaplan and Roy Furman, said in a statement on Tuesday.

    The musical won four Tony Awards. It was capitalized for up to $11.5 million; it is not clear whether it will fully recoup before closing.

    A production of the show is scheduled to begin a national tour this fall, and another production to open in London next year.