An American in Paris review at Dominion Theatre, London – ‘an instant classic’
Hot on the heels of Matthew Bourne’s adaptation of the 1948 dance film The Red Shoes as a new narrative ballet comes this Broadway musical version of An American in Paris, a film originally released just three years later. It, too, swirls with exhilarating movement and contains several extended sequences of pure dance in a variety of genres, from jazz and tap to pure ballet.
As such, it is hardly surprising that the director and choreographer is Christopher Wheeldon, a former Royal Ballet dancer turned leading dance creator for that and other international companies. But in only the second time he has worked on a musical, he shows an intricate command of both narrative and bold stage pictures, working with book writer Craig Lucas and designer Bob Crowley respectively. Together they ingeniously conjure a gorgeous, completely enveloping portrait of post-war Paris that alludes to the dark chapter in the history of the City of Light while simultaneously illustrating its sparkling and sexy side.
It is infused with a wistful romanticism, as the demobbed American soldier Jerry Mulligan decides to stay on in Paris after the liberation to nurture his passion as a painter. He then falls in with aspiring composer Adam and would-be singer Henri from a wealthy Parisian family – and falls in love with a young ballerina, Lise. But she, it turns out, is already spoken for with Henri, whose family protected her from the Nazis.
The story is played out against a composite score drawn from songs that the Gershwin brothers wrote for the film but also other shows and orchestral pieces. These are newly contextualised here within a dance framework that simultaneously serves the emotion and wit of the lyrics but also lets the company fly with movement to underpin it with its own effortless grace.
Just as Half a Sixpence, also in the West End, conscripts even the most reluctant participant into dance with its song Pick out a Simple Tune, so Fidgety Feet here explodes as an exhilarating ensemble number featuring a stageful of feet that won’t stop dancing. The show also contains formal ballet in a way that has not been exploited since the great Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes (which featured choreography by George Balanchine) was revived on Broadway in 1983.
Like that show, this one duly requires ballet-trained dancers, and Wheeldon’s production has the luxury casting of New York City Ballet’s Robert Fairchild as Jerry and the Royal Ballet principal Leanne Cope as Lise, who are both effortless singers as well as dazzling movers. At least 10 of the ensemble also hail from training at the Royal Ballet School, while others have graduated from English National Ballet School, Scottish Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, as well as Arts Ed and Bird College of Dance.
But this is also that rare show where the designs also dance. Paris is magically conjured in line drawings that come to life before our eyes, as do startling transformations. It is sheer musical theatre magic.