ABT’s Met season finished earlier in July and NYCB doesen’t start its Fall Season until September 22. WIth the void in dance offerings, I checked out Christopher Wheeldon’s An American in Paris on Saturday evening. The work is thin on plot with a standard story line of handsome man meets gorgeous girl with complications created by a love triangle; it makes up for the stock Broadway formula with great dancing from a ballet infused cast and wonderful sets and costumes by Bob Crowley.
Wheeldon’s An American in Paris was inspired by the 1951 motion picture starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, set in post-World War II Paris as the city celebrates life after Nazi occupation. Wheeldon directed and choreographed the current Broadway version. Wheeldon has experience with full-length extravaganzas with The Royal Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and San Francisco Ballet’s Cinderella. Wheeldon won a Tony award for best choreography in this production this year.
The production features NYCB’s Robert Fairchild as Jerry Mulligan, an American soldier staying in Paris as he tries to make his way as a painter. In the hustle and bustle of the city, he encounters and immediately falls in love with the beautiful and kind-hearted Lise Dassin on the street. Lise is played by Leeann Cope, a First Artist with The Royal Ballet taking a leave of absence to perform on Broadway. Along the way, Jerry meets aspiring composer Adam Hochberg (played by Brandon Uranowitz). Adam invites Jerry to sketch ballet dancers at a studio where he is a rehearsal pianist. There he meets Lise again as she is a dancer trying out for a role created by a famous Russian choreographer. Throughout the first act, Jerry chases Lise, who falls for Jerry but is reluctant to admit her attraction as she is engaged to Henri Baurel (nicely played by Max von Essen) an heir to a textile fortune. The Jewish Lise is duty bound to marry him as his family saved her from the Nazis during the occupation. Thus her quandary: marry for love or for loyalty and obligation.
The plot is thin, but the production is held together by fine dancing and extravagant sets. For the first act and a half, the dancing was straightforward jazz dancing, with plenty of conventional turned in pirouettes and stag leaps. Wheeldon’s choreography shines brightest in the Act II performance in which Lise fantasizes about Jerry during the performance and the two engage in a sensual pas de deux. Aside from that segment, the choreography was fairly conventional.
Although known for their dancing, Robert and Leanne do a good job singing and acting. I particularly liked Robert in “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” and Leanne in “The Man I Love.” They are not top quality Broadway singers ready for Phantom of the Opera, but are they able to hit high notes well. Their acting was believable; for Robert, it doesn’t hurt to have movie star looks as he chases the gorgeous Lise.
The sets were stunning, starting from the opening scene in which the Nazi swastika flag comes down in favor of the National Flag of France as images of Allied war planes race by. Also interesting was the theater setting during Lise’s performance in Act II, with the back of the stage representing the front of the stage for the performers, with painted curtains and audience as the background.
von Essen was particularly effective as Henri, who was one of the few in the show that had a believable French accent. He has a silky tenor voice that stood out in above the rest in the production.