Thursday, May 28, 2015

'S Almost Wonderful

Review: An American in Paris

The cast of An American in Paris.

Adapted from the Oscar-winning film of the same name, the "new" Gershwin musical An American in Paris is perhaps the most dance heavy production to arrive on Broadway in years. Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's gorgeous routines are executed to perfection by some of the finest dancers on the Great White Way, in a piece that often bears more resemblance to a performance at the New York City Ballet than it does to a traditional showtune-laden musical. Watching the supremely gifted cast spin, leap, and twirl about the stage, you can feel both the director and the performers striving to capture some grand universal truth about love and the human condition, which makes Paris' slight and emotionally uninvolving plot all the more disappointing by comparison. When the dancing ceases, so does the show's ability to engage, resulting in a musical that never quite achieves its full potential.

Set in Paris shortly after the end of World War II, the show opens with American soldier Jerry Mulligan purposefully missing his train home, opting instead to build a new life for himself in the City of Lights. He soon meets fellow American soldier (and budding composer) Adam Hochberg and the wealthy aspiring performer Henri Baurel, while also becoming instantly smitten with a mysterious young ballerina named Lise Dassin. What Jerry doesn't know is that Lise is promised to Henri and Adam is also madly in love with her, creating a complicated web of emotional entanglements as the group begins work on a new ballet starring Lise, composed by Adam, and designed by Jerry.

Craig Lucas' book has the veneer of sophistication but ultimately falters in both its plotting and character development. Many of the characters are two-dimensional beings with flimsy or ill-defined motivations, prone to faux profound observations on life and love. Several of them aren't even particularly likable, including protagonist Jerry, a relentless cad who persistently hounds Lise despite her repeated protestations until she finally relents and agrees to spend time with him. (When a female character tries to exact same tactic on Jerry later in the show, he is less than amused.) This trope of the dogged suitor eventually winning over the entirely uninterested girl is something that was both commonplace and acceptable when the film debuted in 1951, but for a musical created in 2015 it feels uncomfortably misogynistic and makes the central couple difficult to root for.

Lucas also has trouble integrating the musical numbers with the books scenes, with most songs seeming to come out of a desire to have more dancing than being justified by the needs of the characters and the plot. At the same time, it's hard to complain about being given more of the show's strongest suit, as Wheeldon's choreography is simply spectacular from beginning to end. Using Gershwin's glorious melodies as a jumping off point, Wheeldon creates the most complex and sophisticated choreography currently on Broadway. The former ballet dancer knows how to compose beautiful stage pictures using nothing more than the performer's bodies, and his intricate formations and sequencing make even the scene changes a glory to behold. Wheeldon also isn't afraid to abandon the singing and dialogue completely to tell a story solely through movement, which is when the show really takes flight. When the dancing ends and the dialogue resumes, you may find yourself thinking that this story would be more effectively told as a traditional ballet.

Making their Broadway debuts, ballet principals Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope prove to be very capable actor/singers in addition to beautiful dancers, and the show smartly plays to their strengths. Both are innately charming performers that share an easygoing chemistry (even if Fairchild isn't *quite* charming enough to make you overlook or understand Jerry's character flaws), but it is during their many dance sequences that both truly come alive. Fairchild radiates joy and a quiet confidence as he leaps and bounds across the stage, and Cope's beautiful extensions and astoundingly fluid style make it almost impossible to take your eyes off her. Wheeldon's demanding choreography makes ample use of all his lead's many gifts, culminating in the titular "American in Paris" sequence that would be at home on any of the world's great ballet stages.

The supporting performances are generally solid, and become even more impressive when you realize how much material the actors are having to provide in order to make up for the lapses in Lucas' book. Brandon Uranowitz almost makes the lazy choice of having Adam narrate the evening's events in Jersey Boys-style monologues interesting, and Max von Essen is adorably unassuming as the soft spoken Henri. von Essen's big number "Stairway to Paradise" is when Paris bears the most resemblance to a traditional Broadway musical, and he sells it with such panache that you momentarily forget he isn't nearly as accomplished a dancer as most of his costars. Veanne Cox provides some of the evening's most genuine comedy with her dry, droll performance as Henri's mother, even though her character suffers the most from Lucas' underwritten book.

The show's minimalist design is starkly beautiful, with Bob Crowley's costumes and sets perfectly complimented by Natasha Katz's gorgeous lighting design. This is not a literal representation of Paris but a fantastical one, which perfectly compliments the show's stylized tone and many elaborate dance sequences. You may not remember much about the show's plot once it ends, but you will certainly remember the images it presents.

And that, in a nutshell, is the paradox of An American in Paris. While it's happening it makes a huge impression thanks to the strong visuals and charming performances, but as soon at it ends it's difficult to remember what seemed so entrancing about the show in the first place. Christopher Wheeldon has done a sensational job directing and choreographing, and the timeless Gershwin songs remain masterpieces of musical composition. But Craig Lucas' pedestrian book and the somewhat dated premise keep the show from feeling wholly relevant to a contemporary audience, which is a shame given the talent involved. Like the American of its title, this musical is something of a stranger in a strange land that manages to acquit itself rather well in spite of its differences.

No comments:

Post a Comment