“An American in Paris”: Familiar Story, Changed Contexts

by Steven Woodruff

 

Poster from the current production on Broadway

Poster from the current production on Broadway

An American In Paris, an adaptation of Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, is in previews in New York at the Palace Theater on Broadway. It opens in April after a successful run in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet. It’s not really a remake, it wasn’t supposed to be. But the reasons why it feels somewhat misplaced might be different than you think. There is some exceptional dancing in it. Robbie Fairchild (New York City Ballet) looks terrific as Jerry Mulligan with a brimming bagful of jazzy theatrical dancing. Like Kelly, he’s a dashing, sharp mover. He sings and acts pretty well, too. Leanne Cope (Royal Ballet) as Lise Dassin is not quite as watchable, but she is terrific with Fairchild in the dancing sequences especially when she turns on her ballet power.

I was a little disappointed by the show’s traditional structure–a two act production filled with short dance numbers, songs, and dialogue. Christopher Wheeldon who directed and choreographed the show is an accomplished dance man. He’s used to managing long dance scenes in full length ballets but here seems content to play it safe. And while there are good reasons not to expect him to reprise Kelly’s memorable ballet you might have wished for a grand scale dance adventure of his own for that iconic music that concludes the film.

The show is loaded with beautiful stagecraft and sets, plus some magical painterly projections that are inspired by the architectural sketches at the opening of Kelly’s fantasy ballet. The orchestra, arrangements, and sound design are first rate. It’s an exciting, fast moving production that bustles with energy across the Palace’s small stage. Wheeldon has deleted some of the original songs, added others and generally made a more detailed narrative. The numerous scene changes are choreographed as well. They feel like actual dancing as the cast members strike and set up each scene with mesmerizing fluidity and style.

Minnelli’s film captured a remarkable time. It was an era of technical accomplishment for film and a golden age for dance in the movies. Above all, it was an era of hope and new beginnings.  Many service men didn’t return after WWII. They stayed on or returned at the end of the war seeking opportunity in Europe where there was a continent to rebuild. Black performers, jazz musicians especially, tired of their treatment at home, also set sail for Europe where society was more tolerant and welcoming. Americans had won the war for them. They didn’t care so much that many were black.

Original one sheet from the Gene Kelly film

Original one sheet from the Gene Kelly film

Alan Jay Lerner’s love story captures the optimism of an aspiring American artist trying to make it in the European capital that had always romanced both women and art.  The original music from 1928 was not written as a dance piece. Gershwin said he simply wanted to capture the sounds and feeling of an American tourist in what was then Europe’s capitol. It reflects the buoyant optimism of another flush era two decades earlier. Which brings me to ask, why redo this story? Why now?  The era of “An American in Paris” is so unlike our own. The world seems mired in perpetual regional conflict.  Our own flagship wars will easily outlast two two-term presidents. Hope isn’t in the air anywhere. In fact, we seem busy burning the place down. The original movie and Gershwin’s music had a raison d’etre, they filled a societal need and expressed the breezy desires of two generations. It was more than entertainment. It was real.

I don’t think we’re ready just yet to believe in an American musical with a hopeful tale of new beginnings.  And because of it, the underpinnings of this production ring a bit hollow. This An American in Paris feels more like a nostalgic history lesson, an adaptation for a nation mostly immune to the effects of war and social dislocation at home and abroad. There are no average Joe’s eager to travel to the austerity capitols of Europe hoping to catch a lucky break. The bonds that transcend class, religion, and nationality in Wheeldon’s deepened narrative seem an unlikely possibility in the Europe of today.

There are many talented dancers in the cast (especially ballet dancers) getting a shot at a being part of an historic Broadway production. There is a lot of magic there. I don’t know if people will find it irresistible. It was wildly successful when it opened in Paris. But as a formidable essay in nostalgia it’s hard to beat.  Perhaps that’s as much as it can be for us this time around.

(Click here for a very entertaining shortened version  of  “An American in Paris” arranged for two pianos and percussion. This was the original RCA Victor version recorded in 1929.)

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