Is sentimental attachment to Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron and George Gershwin, a sufficient guarantor to justify producing the Broadway remake of a 65-year-old film, set in 1945 post-World War II France, with a sub-plot that references the pro-fascist Marshal Pétain Vichy occupation government? That pendulous question may have given investors pause, and caused a few sleepless nights for librettist Craig Lucas.
“An American in Paris” is packing the house nightly at New York’s Palace Theatre, and picked up four Tony Awards last week for Best Orchestrations by Christopher Austin, Don Sebesky, and Bill Elliot, Best Lighting by Natasha Katz, Best Set Design by Bob Crowley, and Best Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, a Broadway newcomer, who also directed the finely styled re-conceptualization, with four cast members variously nominated for Best and Best Supporting Actor/Actress, and deservedly so.
The creative team managed to dispose of, finesse, or side-step, a host of stumbling blocks that could have made the show cumbersome, and using a “hand-is-faster-than-the-eye” cascade of design inventions, distract the audience from lingering too long on questions they never knew were historically pivotal until the show’s book raised them. In short, it transformed audience members into replicants of Jerry Mulligan, the show’s hero, an ex-GI and portrait artist turned ex-pat. Mulligan is loquaciously clueless in that Ugly American way that ends up hosing everything and everyone with an irritating naiveté and woeful ignorance that no number of glib one-liners, or copious “dabs’ll do ya” can evacuate. So, when in the end, he gets the girl, we so fully identify success for ourselves with success for Jerry that no one pauses to ask, “Why him?” as opposed to the other two contenders, Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz), and Henri Baurel (Max von Essen.) They register as characters with more spine and substance than Jerry. Their love of Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope), the show’s ballerina enchantress-with-a-past, runs deeper.
A semi-anti-Semitic survival of Oscar Levant’s Hochberg film version portrayal still floats so baldly that its widely-shared nostrum need not be stated outright: that, to wit, the cultured Jewish “schlub” never gets the girl, so strike his name from the rivals list, and in this iteration, there is the sotto voce hint that Baurel may be gay (“his tastes run beyond women,” his mother informs more than once), thus politically correctly disposing of his candidacy. Ah, if only the course of true love ran so smooth as to excuse from service those labeled categorically by idée fixe notions of ethnicity and sexual orientation! Or, put another way, “It wouldn’t be make believe, if you believed in me!”
The bottom line is that the storyline is subordinate to the show’s rewrite, and those who have criticized it as “pale,” are, in this reviewer’s opinion, confusing its plot with the original non-cohesive one that no amount of added cornstarch could thicken, stiffen, or hold together. What do matter this time out are the Gershwin tunes—many more than in the original—played by an actual live, top-notch orchestra (reassuring that live music has not yet been given up for dead on Broadway), conducted jubilantly by Todd Ellison, with dance arrangements by Sam Davis to Rob Fisher’s score, eye-catching Crowley sets, complementary lighting by Natasha Katz, and the dancers’ bandbox-fresh interpretations of Wheeldon’s boldly clever choreography.
The challenge to the cast’s mettle has to do with how they collectively draw the character of Lise Dassin. Cope, who comes to the stage directly from the hallowed portals of London’s Royal Ballet, is superb. As a dancer, she limns the caution contradicted by flirtatiousness, and the longing and sensuality scanted by insularity, especially in a pas de deux toward the end, in a scene that takes on the cubist design elements of Mulligan’s paintings, where Nathan Madden partners her most adoringly. Her style of dancing adds depth to the vulnerable and fragile character she has to convey mostly through her silences, and so it is the other members of the cast who tell her story out loud, and in her quietude, she embraces the multiple dimensions that each cast member slowly contributes to shading in.
Insightful staging by Wheeldon takes full advantage of Crowley’s imaginative sets that combine panels, screened images, and mobile props, often moved by the dancers, to complete an image in a playful trope. When Jerry throws an item over the seawall, we see the surrounding ripples splash up the resulting drop of water on a screened hand-drawn image of the Seine.
Robert Fairchild brings a quotient of attack to his dancing that tells us just what kind of game-on guy Jerry is. He also seems to abandon a step before carrying its line through the ends of a hand or foot—but Jerry is “that” guy, as well. Though they have very different dance personalities, Cope and Fairchild pair well to create the improbable couple that walks off into the sunset at the final curtain.
The supporting cast frames the story elegantly, as well as eloquently, each actor a consummate performing artist. Max von Essen captures the duality of the rival love interest that, thanks to his mother’s machinations, makes him feel duty bound to love and marry Lise, though he lacks the courage to propose. Veanne Cox, as his mother, Madame Baurel, measures her purchase with care, so as to assure achieving her scheme’s desired result. The glistening Jill Paice, is the Celeste Holm-style cougar-cum-art patron, and wears the most extravagant costumes of all. Once she drops the distracting Katherine Hepburn bray she affects in the first act, her exquisitely natural comic talents emerge as every inch the character she describes herself as in the hilarious line “I am Milo Davenport—international dilettante!” Paice is also gifted with the strongest and most versatile singing voice in the show. The confidence that fuels her second-act performance stands on its own, meaning that she should feel well-enough equipped to freely let go of the derivative Hepburn, with everything to gain and absolutely nothing to lose.
Without such a strong and present cast, it would have been hard to invoke a device that works well to present the complicated storyline and relationships that shape it. On at least two occasions, Wheeldon halves the stage like a split screen, so that on each side, two characters are having different conversations in song about the same subject. It’s a lot for the audience to take in, but the actors are equal to the task, and it adds an aural anteroom to the set, where the sub-text (“sometimes the wrong people discover the right thing,” and sometimes the right people meet at the wrong time) annotates the story.
A piece of good news for San Franciscans traveling to New York in the month of August is that former San Francisco Ballet Soloist Garen Scribner, will dance the role of Jerry Mulligan during that time. If I were you, I’d reserve my tickets now! As I overheard a stage door Johnny, well into his 60s, remark, “An American in Paris” ranks as one of Broadway’s Top Five!