An American in Paris continues at the Dominion Theatre, London.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
It was back in December 2014 that our contributor Jeremy Chapman reviewed this reinvention of the wonderful 1951 Oscar-winning Vincente Minnelli/Gene Kelly movie when it opened – rather appropriately – at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. Then, just four months later, it wowed our New York correspondent Ron Cohen who wrote: “An American in Paris has arrived on Broadway, uncorking an intoxicating brew of glorious dance and gorgeous music.”
Now, finally, the wait is over and former dancer and renowned English director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has brought his enchanting production to London’s Dominion Theatre.
While the show had its official first night on Tuesday evening, I caught up with it on Wednesday, an unsettling night to be at the theatre following the shocking events of late afternoon in Westminster.
Unlike the aforementioned movie, Wheeldon and writer Craig Lucas immediately place the story in a historical context. As the Second World War comes to a close, the now demobbed American soldier Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild) is walking the streets of Paris trying to decide whether to remain in the city or catch the train home.
Around him, and with special poignancy after the events of this particular day, we witness the anger at what the city and its people have experienced and the sadness of what has been lost. Until, that is, through the grey shades of war, colour begins to seep through – personified for Jerry by his first glimpses of the enchanting Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope). It pictures a city determined to stay strong, one that is looking to the future.
In the programme Wheeldon says: “it seemed to me that we could show light emerging from the darkness.” There was no better message on this of all evenings.
These first subtle changes of mood are just a teaser, for it has to be said that Bob Crowley’s divine costumes and stylish mirror-panelled sets, together with the projections from 59 Productions Ltd, create a staggeringly beautiful world which envelops the audience and serves the story at almost every angle (credit to lighting design Natasha Katz too).
Particularly effective is the way we follow Jerry’s journey as he tries to attract interest in his work as an artist. His sketches not only come alive before our very eyes, but also compose the sights and sounds of the City of Light.
Paris is, of course, the home of romance, but the road to a happy ending has several twists and turns here. Jerry has become close friends with composer Adam (David Seadon-Young) and Henri (Haydn Oakley), the son of a wealthy French family who secretly dreams of becoming a nightclub singer.
What Jerry doesn’t realise as he pursues up-and-coming ballet dancer Lise is that she is promised to Henri, for he and his parents (played by Jane Asher and Julian Forsyth) protected the young Jewish girl from Nazi occupiers throughout the war. To make events even more complicated, Adam also becomes smitten with Lise as he begins to write a ballet especially for her (also designed by Jerry!).
Occasionally some of the narrative set-pieces become a little disjointed and convoluted, but on the whole Wheeldon nicely balances the mix of George and Ira Gershwin classics and sophisticated dance sequences.
New numbers that weren’t in the original movie are often a treat too, whether it’s the poignant ‘The Man I Love’ or the irresistible and infectious ‘Fidgety Feet’.
Before An American in Paris came into the lives of Fairchild and Cope, the former was part of the New York City Ballet, while the latter performed with the Royal Ballet. So while the artists actually turn out to be charming singers, it is no surprise to discover that some of the evening’s most memorable moments are when they express their emotions through dance – not least in the sensuous final fantasy ballet.
Fairchild and Cope are also accompanied by other excellent cast members (in addition to a fine ballet-trained ensemble): Seadon-Young, who takes on the role of narrator, manages to create a likeable pessimist with a dry sense of humour; while Haydn Oakley, struggling to come to terms with losing Lise, proves as always he is as good an actor as he is a song and dance man.
Zoe Rainey deserves a special mention for her portrayal of Milo Davenport, Jerry’s patron and potential paramour. As she shifts from seduction to sorrow, it is touching to see her come to the realisation that love is one thing her money cannot buy.
Final plaudits should go to all those who have contributed to the exquisite sound of this luscious score, not least adapter, arranger and supervisor Rob Fisher.
So off we went into the night, full of the joy of this collaboration between musical theatre and ballet, and perhaps believing just a little more that there is always light at the end of the tunnel.
Tickets for An American in Paris are available HERE.
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