A dancer is a thing of beauty, and 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 stageworthy vehicle casts ballet stars Robert Fairchild (a New York City Ballet principal dancer) as an American soldier who lingers in Paris after WWII and Leanne Cope (of London’s Royal Ballet) as the unattainable French girl he falls in love with. Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron played these roles in the film, and comparisons would not be out of line.
It’s hard to breathe during the dreamy, 14-minute ballet that brings the show to a close with the lovers locked at last in each other’s arms — 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. Fairchild and Cope are trained ballet dancers, so every move they execute in this pas de deux is poised, eloquent and technically flawless. But these stars prove equally credible as all-around Broadway performers who can sing and act on a professional level, too. Throughout their last dance, American G.I. Jerry Mulligan (Fairchild) and his beloved Lise Dassin (Cope) hold each other’s gaze as closely as they hold each other’s body, oblivious to the rest of the world.
Main man Wheeldon (associate choreographer with the Royal Ballet, but making a triumphant Broadway debut as a director-choreographer here) has been equally meticulous about casting the rest of the versatile company. This is one of the most ballet-centric dance shows ever seen on Broadway. The character of Lise has been reimagined as a professional ballerina, so she and the sizable ensemble have a rationale for being in pointe shoes for much of the show — except when they’re in jazz or tap shoes. That alone puts heavy demands on the company, but their proficiency as actors and singers is what defines them as triple-threat Broadway dancers and worth their weight in gold.
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The dominant dance isn’t all that’s new about this vintage musical. Some of the touchstones of the original Gershwin score for the movie, like “Embraceable You” and “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” didn’t make the cut, and a novelty number like “Fidgety Feet” adds dubious value. But no one’s going to pick a fight over “The Man I Love” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” — especially with a full orchestra in the pit of the Palace.
What really makes the show feel fresh is the context in which Lucas has reconceived it, keeping in mind that reworking any beloved musical or movie can land you in a sandtrap. The writer (“The Light in the Piazza”) aged this show backwards, deepening and darkening the material so it now seems genuinely relevant for our own war-torn age. There’s still plenty of light and laughter in the story of a G.I. who helped liberate Paris and then fell in love with the city and its colorful artistic community. But this isn’t Vincente Minnelli’s Technicolor vision, which was set in the postwar 1950s when Parisians weren’t quite so shell-shocked from the German Occupation.
Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz, sweetly cynical), the American ex-pat and gifted composer who befriends Jerry and introduces him to all the fun folks, is still at the piano playing Gershwin’s “Concerto in F.” But our guide has a visible war wound, and when he shows visitors around Paris, the haunting setpieces by Bob Crowley and visuals from 59 Projections reveal the city as it was in 1945, when people were just coming out from the shadows (layers and layers of shadows, in Natasha Katz’s lighting design) of four years of living under military occupation.
The sweeping skirts and frothy petticoats of the 1950s make a pretty if premature show of themselves in the gorgeous frocks worn by Milo Davenport (Jill Paice, perfect as a cool dame with heart), the rich American art patron who has her eye on Jerry, a promising painter in the new avant-garde style of De Stijl. There’s also a lavish scene with leggy showgirls in rhinestones and feathers when Henri Baurel (a very natty Max von Essen), another one of Jerry’s moneyed pals, fantasizes performing “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” at Radio City — to the horror of his strict parents (smartly played by Veanne Cox and Scott Willis). And of course, Lise’s delicate dancing outfits look luscious on Cope.
But for the most part, costumer Crowley faithfully references the muted color palette, tiny patterns, and shape-hugging silhouettes that defined the fashion in postwar Europe, when women were hungering for a little color. And instead of making the characters look drab, the authenticity of the period costuming makes us admire their survival spirit.
The same might be said of this unorthodox transformation of a bright and cheerful All-American musical into an enchanting but more reflective and deeply moving experience.