Benet Catty Productions

An American in Paris (WE 2017)

Apr 17, 2017


I sometimes complain in these pages about musicals that have been over-praised by the London critics - the execrable School of Rock and the middle-of-the-road The Girls being two recent examples. An American in Paris has so far had twenty-one five-star reviews. You'll get no argument from me on this one.

Having recently concluded its 18-month run on Broadway, during which it won awards for its choreography, design and star Robert Fairchild (who plays here until June), An American in Paris is unarguably the classiest show in London.

Based on the 1951 film of the same name which starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, the light but involving story sees three men - a former GI (Jerry), a failed composer (Adam) and a closeted singer (Henri) - hook up in post war Paris and variously become entranced by a ballerina (Lise). Jerry indulges his passion for painting, the composer wins a commission to write a ballet, and Henri tries in vain to keep his passion for singing away from his overbearing parents. As all of them paint, sing or dance their way to more hopeful futures, Lise has to decide whom she loves. Her answer is not surprising but her journey to it is beautiful.

An American in Paris is much closer to a ballet than it is to a typical musical, even with the gorgeously arranged dozen Gershwin songs plus orchestral numbers which weave their way through the evening. British director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, with the ever-great designer Bob Crowley (currently also represented in London by The Glass Menagerie and Aladdin), gift us a production that sumptuously blends art, ballet and music just as the story does. Not since The Phantom of the Opera thirty years ago has any London musical so fluidly moved from tableau to tableau as we see here. The set dances and spins with the actors, and 59 Productions' dazzling projections sketch images before our eyes one minute and then give us big block colours at the next. Most musicals have three or four big visual moments; An American in Paris provides them constantly for nearly three hours.

First among equals, Robert Fairchild is dazzling as Jerry, embodying the show's signature style of maximum dance detail with minimum visible effort. He flies around the stage with a lightness of physicality and a charm of personality that would make one wonder why Lise didn't just go for him in the first place were it not for the talent of Adam (David Seadon-Young) and the nerdy showmanship of Henri (Haydn Oakley), who has an amusing line in Franglais that may remind British audiences of 'Allo 'Allo. Meanwhile Jane Asher, as Henri's deadpan mother superior, proves surprisingly unable to bring the comic relief which the part is meant to offer.

Many of Gershwin's great numbers "They Can't Take That Away from Me", "I Got Rhythm" and "But Not For Me" lace the story, as indeed they did for the last Gershwin extravaganza to transfer from Broadway twenty five years ago, Crazy for You, which made the name of its then little-known choreographer Susan Stroman. Like that 1991 production, this looks and feels like the essence of a Broadway show despite its Anglo-Irish director/designer team. But where Crazy had wise cracks aplenty, this is an altogether gentler show with grace trumping razzmatazz at every turn.

When the show goes for broke it really dazzles. The three best dances are in the second act: "Fidgety Feet" a great Broadway show dance; "Stairway to Paradise" in which Henri moves from singing on a little cabaret stage into a dazzling dream sequence as part of a Busby Berkeley-style chorus line and then back again, and the final ten minute ballet which is the longest and most dazzling dance sequence in any musical in decades.

One of the men tells Lise at the curtain call of the ballet that displays her brilliance and could determine her future, "love is even more important than art". This wonderful show blurs the distinction and gives you both.

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