People that know me know I do not do standing ovations. Nowadays, they have become perfunctory by audiences, a rote exercise. A standing ovation should be reserved for that magical moment in the theater where something special, not often seen on stage, has occurred. At a performance of the new Broadway musical, An American in Paris, I stood and applauded. I was overwhelmed by the breathtaking dance numbers and the performances of the talented cast. I almost cried. But the primary accolades were for the stunning Broadway debut of lead actor Robert Fairchild (the Gene Kelly role in the film). A principle dancer with the New York City Ballet, Fairchild assuredly shows his prowess as a triple threat with his acting, singing and, especially, his mesmerizing dancing excellence.
The musical, based on the 1951 MGM film classic that starred Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and Oscar Levant, centers on American expatriates Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild), a budding painter; and Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz), a pianist and composer living in Paris right after the end of World War II. They befriend a French café owner, Henri Baurel (Max von Essen), who’s very proper family is well-off in the textile industry. Henri dreams of becoming a nightclub performer instead of going into the family business. He also plans to marry his longtime sweetheart Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope), a graceful and highly skilled ballet dancer. The problem is that both Jerry and Adam, through chance meetings, have also fallen in love with the young lady. Enter American heiress and arts patron Milo Davenport (Jill Paice) who agrees to fund a new ballet with Jerry as the scenic and costume designer, Adam as composer, and Lise as the principle dancer. The relationships between the primary protagonists continue to intersect, develop, and shift allegiances culminating in the breathtaking 13 minute ballet sequence. In the end, truths are exposed and love interests are realigned.
Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who has worked with ballet companies worldwide, has created one of the most extraordinary and spectacular works for the musical theater I have seen in many years. Working with librettist, Craig Lucas, he has fashioned a book musical that is utterly alive with song and dance. The actors, many, including the ensemble, come from the world of dance. They don’t just walk across stage they glide, they float, they soar. His dazzling dance routines incorporate many styles including ballet, jazz, and traditional Broadway fare. His creations heighten the emotional and dramatic content of the show. Not every aspect of An American in Paris revolves around dance and his handling of the more dialogue-laden scenes are handled with confidence and aplomb. However, these parts of the show never last too long before dance takes center stage.
The two stars of the show, Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, make splashing Broadway debuts. Enough cannot be said about Fairchild who will, hopefully (for audiences’ benefit), find consistent work in the realm of musical theater. He is athletic, poised, and has a commanding presence on stage. Cope’s character is shy, reserved, and shrouded in mystery, which she bewitchingly conveys. Her precision and elegance within Wheeldon’s choreographic structure is a sight to behold. Brandon Uranowitz, convincingly wraps his portrayal of Adam Hochberg, into parts comic foil and embittered, lovelorn artist. Max von Essen as Henri Baurel, initially comes across one-dimensional until, by show’s end, he has untethered his past to become a more sympathetic and likeable character.
The score by George and Ira Gershwin is vibrant and spirited. Musical Supervisor Rob Fisher, as he has done for so long in the City Center’s Encores! series, makes the music come alive and sound fresh. The songs? How about, for starters, “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “S Wonderful,” and “Fidgety Feet.”
In keeping with the flow and movement of the production, most of Bob Crowley’s sets utilize moveable screens and partitions. His use of rear screen projections is understated and highly effective. The sets and costumes for the two no-holds barred Act II dance numbers—‘I’ll Build You a Staircase” and “An American in Paris”—are exceptional.
An American in Paris, one of the best musicals in recent memory.