Dominion Theatre, London – until 30 September 2017
One of Wheeldon’s finest moments that captures the romantic essence of its Parisian roots and brings it into the present day. Experience a cast and creative team working its peak in a fitting homage to an iconic style.
Think of American Jazz and the roaring twenties and you automatically think of the Gershwin brothers. George and Ira are synonymous with the style – Rhapsody in Blue; virtuoso piano jazz standards; lilting, dreamy trumpet melodies; plush orchestration. All the aspects of a timeless classic composition can be found in An American In Paris – fitting, since it is itself one of the true great films of its era, a bastion of historical Hollywood in all its intoxicating glamour.
But despite the sheer elegance of the film and the epic nature of the music, there are a couple of times in this musical when the two don’t quite sit well together. Rod Fisher adapts the score to incorporate some all-time favourites from the monolithic Gershwin duo and some of these feel shoehorned in. I Got Rhythm works because Fisher has so diligently engrained it into the fabric of the show – motifs of that instantly recognisable song pop up at different points so as to anchor the piece, giving it familiarity and stability. But others are less successful – They Can’t Take That Away From Me, despite the effortless harmonic blend given by the three leading men, is out of place and jarring. Equally Stairway to Heaven, although accentuating the production value at its peak, is a cheesy departure for the classic, vintage, Parisian feel that this musical otherwise elegantly exudes.
Putting these awkward numbers (and one technical hitch) aside, An American In Paris is a worthy celebration of a glamourous age, effortless in its conceptualisation and close to flawless in its execution. Christopher Wheeldon brings together some of the modern greats to work on this masterpiece and every aspect of the production epitomises the best of their talents. It is easy to see this glittering list of names – Bob Crawley’s set & costumes and Natasha Katz’s lighting – and discount the show, expecting it to be of high calibre. With 13 Tony awards between them, including one each for the original American counterpart, this duo once again evocatively sketches vintage Paris and captures the romantic essence and artistry that this period commands. It would be easy to recreate An American In Paris as an accurate homage to the original film – iron balustrades, traditional French salon accordions and a heady mix of smoke and perfume. But Wheeldon simultaneously stays true to the history of the setting and adds his distinctive modern interpretation to the show. Pencil drawings and softly lit Parisian architecture culminate in a Mondrian-inspired ballet sequence that acts as the perfect climax to this combination of ballet, jazz and art.
Apart from the production value, which in itself sets the bar to a new level for West End musicals, an American In Paris is all about the graceful prowess and dancing showmanship of its 25-strong cast. Every member of the ensemble has poise and power, trademarks of the sheer beauty of ballet as an art form. Even the scene transitions are carefully considered and precisely realised. Wheeldon turns his choreographic eye on everything, from moving around scant pieces of set in an ever-shifting design to the routines that add pace and momentum to proceedings. In his unique style, Wheeldon doesn’t settle for a classical repetition of the past, but fuses the traditional with the modern; ballet with jazz; fluidity with angular movement. He picks up the progressive nature of the Gershwin brothers’ compositions and emanates it in the sphere of today – pushing boundaries, testing new ideas and organically linking the past to the future. The creative balletic breakouts that intersperse the overarching narrative are some of Wheeldon’s finest moments.
At the head of the pack are the two leads, with years of professional ballet experience between them. Individually Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope) and Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild) are visually stunning performers, showcasing all the traditional facets expected from ballet. Cope’s pointwork is undeniably exquisite, but it is the couple work that elevates both dancers to new heights. Fairchild and Cope’s pas de deux are flawless; they move as if they are extensions of the same entity, so in sync that it is impossible for one to move without the other. The final ballet, which already acts as the climax for all the best parts of this production, is graceful, sexy, passionate and elegant – a celebration of love in its purest form. Even this performance is interspersed with modern flecks – jazz movements creep into the lifts and footwork and transform the performance into a new version of itself. The show never does a disservice to the past but creates something new, original and very much in the present.
The two leads are equally capable when it comes to vocal performances too, but the real strength here can be found in the supporting characters, particularly that of Milo Davenport (Zoë Rainey) and Henri Baurel (Haydn Oakley). These two are powerful, soulful and controlled, never quite slipping past their boundaries, but more than capable of doing so should it ever be needed. The strongest songs in this show are the duets and trios; they fuse the jazz chords of Gershwin with the showmanship of musical theatre to exude emotion in a powerful, heady mix.
An American In Paris always runs the risk of becoming another classic musical, retold in the same traditional way. It’s one of the reasons I don’t ultimately connect with performances of this type on the West End. But Wheeldon puts the brakes on this from the start – this is a production that celebrates the past & present, traditional & contemporary.