The new musical, An American in Paris, was born Saturday evening, November 22, at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. A co-production with the Pittsburg Civic Light Opera, when it finally gets to Broadway, get your tickets early. It will be a smash hit.
You would think that someone would have thought about it before. There is, of course, a long history of American musicals being transferred to celluloid but the 1951 Vincent Minnelli film of the same name, with Gene Kelly and a young Leslie Caron, was begging to be put on the boards (it won six Oscars) and why it waited a half-century is anyone’s guess. The music, by some composer named George Gershwin, has already proved its usefulness over the years.
But this movie only provided the inspiration for an entirely new version with a libretto by Craig Lucas (based on the original text by Ira Gershwin). It has a new musical framework by Rob Fisher and direction and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon. The central focus on dance is the major departure from the film and the ballet sequences are one of the most impressive parts of the entire work. It is not by accident that Jerry Mulligan, the young artist that “missed his boat” back to America, is played by Robert Fairchild, a star of the New York City Ballet. His love interest, the young French girl Lise Dassin, is Leanne Cope from the Royal Opera’s ballet. In shifting sets that transport us from streets to drawing rooms to cafes, it is the cafe where Jerry meets Adam Hochberg, the misanthropic Oscar Levant character from the film. It was his writing music for, and falling in love with, the young dancer that leads to a new ballet sponsored by an aristocratic French family. Jerry is, of course, smitten too as is the shy young son of the family, Henri Baurel.
You might hear some Gershwin you don’t know by heart. The first ballet sequence is from the Concerto in F, but there are ballet sequences to the Second Prelude for piano and another with the Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra. But otherwise songs like “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “Love is Here to Stay,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and others placed in seamless settings creates an evening not to be forgotten.
Many roles arrived fully mature: Robert Fairchild danced with stunning brilliance and his role as Jerry needs no touchup. Brandon Uranowitz’ grumpy Hochberg is perfectly formed and hugely engaging. Leanne Cope, as Lise, a ballerina who makes a living at the perfume counter at Galerie Lafayette, has all the potential but seemed hesitant with her voice. Leanne Cox as upscale Madame Baurel and her husband, Monsieur Baurel (Scott Willis) are fully formed contributors as is Jill Paice as Milo Davenport, a sardonic and rich American donor who is also attracted to Jerry. The sometimes scrappy pit orchestra, conducted by Brad Haak, will improve with time. Costumes and decor, by Bob Crowley, are period perfect. When the show hits its stride it will be unstoppable.
Parenthetically, at the intermission, I ran into two critic friends. While my invitation was somehow for opening night, they were invited for the December 10 performance, repeating the NYC practice of having critics wait a couple of weeks for new shows opening on Broadway. Both had bought tickets for opening night, however, with one complaining about the cramped conditions in the upper balcony, a seat he would not normally experience. And there were problems opening night. An excruciating sound system was mostly fixed in the second half and some searching, by some of the cast, for the right sound was to be expected.
The story is told with assurance and the handsome and often glamorous sets work well to give the story a natural flow. The curtains open, for example, for the new ballet and the audience sees a reverse image of their own rather famous theater as the venue. The ballet, set to music from the symphonic poem which gives the work its name, is, of course, a hit and the new ballet star learns to follow her heart and pledge to Jerry. Shouts of approval and a standing ovation, rather rare in France, ended the triumphal launch of a major new work. It is running until January 4th.