An American in Paris arrives in London following a very successful run in New York back in 2014. Based on the 1951 film of the same name, this is the first opening of a year that sees many productions harking back to a golden era of musicals.
Director Christopher Wheeldon had great success when An American in Paris opened on Broadway. The production received 12 Tony Award nominations and showed audiences that big and bold adaptations of old school musicals can still feel very current. Now in London, it perhaps has more of a feat on its hands; in a theatrical landscape which is playing it very safe with smaller scale productions and new musicals confined to the fringe, this is attempting to sell out one of the West End’s biggest houses.
But will it succeed?
Centred around a love triangle (well more of a square) it tells the story of Lise Dassin and the steps those around her take to put on a ballet in which she is the star. Her current beau Henri Baurel has pressure from his parents to marry, Adam Hochberg the composer observes her from afar with a quiet love, and Jerry Mulligan the ballet’s designer (and seemingly expert dancer) battles to get Lise to admit her true affections. She is quiet, unassuming and has lived a life in the shadows, but must now find her place in the spotlight.
In many ways An American in Paris is more of a dance show than a musical, but it brings together the best of both formats. Rousing ballads are out, and touching, intimate balletic moments are in. Large ensemble songs come and go amongst sweeping (and leaping) dance sequences that leave the jaw on the floor.
It’s certainly a format that’s not seen all that often in modern musicals, and I highly doubt it’ll be for everyone. There’s a beauty to much of the production that goes very much against the grain of the traditional loud and brash, wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve musical structure.
And it sets the scene from the off, opening with a ten minute dance sequence that gives background to the story: Mulligan (Robert Fairchild) meets Lise (Leanne Cope) and through an unfortunate sequence of events the two repeatedly miss each other. It’s played out entirely through dance and it isn’t until well into the first act that we get any singing, or indeed any dialogue.
It’s only fitting then that special mention has to go to Wheeldon’s choreography, which does an incredible job of replicating the emotion of the characters. It’s never more obvious than in Jerry and Lise’s playfulness by the river, or in the final ballet, which well and truly showed off this talented cast’s skills (and also managed to somewhat unusually bring a tear to my eye).
If anything that choreography is far more of a success than Craig Lucas’s book, which too often skips from scene to scene with little exposition in between. I thoroughly expect that is largely because the creative team made the decision to hand off some of the storytelling to the choreography. But when the three friends and Lise’s love interests, Jerry, Henri and Adam, spend virtually no time together throughout (in fact Adam barely even speaks to Lise until the story requires him to near the end), the love battle comes across quite false.
That’s certainly through no fault of the cast though – whether the skilled ensemble or the lead actors, there are no weak links to be had (although perhaps the odd weak accent showing up here and there); Jane Asher, Zoe Rainey and David Seadon-Young all shine in their respective roles. But for all their hard work, nobody on stage comes close to outshining Fairchild and Cope, who are the perfect embodiment of Jerry and Lise. Fairchild exuding a masculinity that’s hard not to fall for, and Cope suitably timid and alluring.
When it comes to the music, as mentioned there’s little in the way of traditional musical numbers, but George and Ira Gershwin’s soundtrack has been used beautifully by Rob Fisher who makes it rousing in all the right places, dramatic towards the start as war planes fly overhead, and subtle and playful at the more intimate points. Bob Crowley’s set design takes a similar approach to the music, combining beautiful French vistas with bold projections. The design is, at times, a love letter to French architecture, and stunning to watch as the visuals are sketched out and painted in front of our eyes.
All in all, this is a very welcome addition to the London theatre scene and unlike anything else on offer right now. That said, it’s set up shop in a big house and will be like Marmite for many people’s tastes, so it remains to be seen whether or not it has the success it’s clearly hoping for.
For many this might be a little left field, but if only to see the sheer talent on stage, and to appreciate an era of musicals that is largely lost, it’s well and truly worth your money.
And the view…
Circle, row B, seat 37. Seriously, why is this view marked as restricted. It’s half the price of the one to the right, has tons of legroom, is more comfortable than 90% of the seats elsewhere in London theatres, and doesn’t feel too distant from the action. Massive bargain!