PETER MASON sees a vibrant production of An American in Paris which encapsulates the essence of what a feel-good musical should be
An American in Paris
Dominion Theatre, London W1
IT’S hard to fault this beautifully choreographed and engaging production of a musical built on some of George Gershwin’s classic compositions. If there are imperfections in An American in Paris, then they stem from the rather predictable storyline of the 1951 film on which this stage version is based.
Yet director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has successfully worked over any inherent blemishes. The end product is a rich, sumptuous affair full of style and romance.
Leanne Cope moves and sings wonderfully as a sweet and enchanting Lise Dassin, a young ballet dancer trying to deal with the lovesick attentions of two Americans and a Frenchman in the war-damaged Paris of 1945, while Robert Fairchild is both confident and slightly vulnerable as her chief suitor, the GI-turned-painter Jerry Mulligan.
There’s a chemistry between the two that lifts the production whenever the narrative flags and which comes to the fore spectacularly during a sensual, climactic dance routine that puts the seal on a wonderful evening.
Whether by accident or casting design, Cope and Fairchild bear some physical resemblances to Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly, the stars of the Oscar-winning film.
But, unlike that pair, they have ballet rather than jazz dance in their soul — as does the whole production.
This comes as no surprise, given Wheeldon’s background with all the world’s major ballet companies and it helps to make this a musical that hangs on the refined excellence of its choreography rather than the belting out of showstopping numbers.
That suits Gershwin’s understated but irresistible melodies, yet it’s also down to Wheeldon’s clear conviction that the strength of this production should be in the beauty of its movement as much as its sound.
Plenty of that derives not just from the terrific supporting cast and ensemble but from Bob Crowley’s shimmering and ever-shifting backdrops of Paris.
Each stunning scene emerges with an impressionistic sketchbook outline that gradually focuses into more detailed images of elegant buildings, twinkling lights, night skies and ripples on the surface of the Seine.
In the final dance routine, these painterly backdrops are exchanged for a dramatic kaleidoscope of modernistic shapes and colours, providing a dramatic canvas for the action in front.
While all of this generates a delightful sense of place, the one thing that the show fails to provide is a clear feel for the time in which it is set, despite an opening five-minute section that tries to convey the dislocation of the aftermath of the second world war.
But in the final analysis that matters little in a spectacle that delivers musical theatre escapism at something close to its best.