Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Review An American In Paris

An American In Paris
Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin & Ira Gershwin
Book by Craig Lucas
Inspired by the Motion Picture

Damsel In Distress

The cultural exchange and relationship between Paris and New York perhaps reached its apogée before the Second World War when a favourable exchange rate meant that many American writers, artists and artistes found a cheap and artistically amenable home in the French capital.

By 1951, the war was over, a once beleaguered Paris still had her more than her fair share of attractions but the USA and Europe were embarking on a newly configured relationship. At that time,  Ira Gershwin, Vincente Minelli, Alan Jay Lerner and Gene Kelly clubbed together and came up with An American In Paris.

Its innovative dance routines, painterly design, lucid script and a muscular lead any American man could feel ok about identifying with produced (or rather Arthur Freed produced) a sure-fire post Second World War hit.

Now Brit ballet choreographer and director Christopher Wheeldon  has put on stage a balletic version inspired by the film with a new book by playwright Craig Lucas pushing the action back to the days following the liberation of Paris in 1945.

With, naturally,  spectacular dance routines, and exquisite set and costume designs by Bob Crowley, the production values of this musical extravaganza are superb. There are touches of magic, even apart from the dance.

The moment when the character of American composer Adam directs an orchestra on stage and has his mirror image in musical director John Rigby stands on its two feet while being a gloriously inventive transformation of a sequence in the movie. 

In both the movie and the stage show army veteran Jerry Mulligan falls in love with both the City of Lights and a mysterious young woman when he pursues his dream, on the GI bill, to become a painter.

Lucas's new book adds backstory to the young woman and also makes her the centre of a love triangle with Jewish American composer Adam and French would-be American musical theatre star Henri. The book's additions also draw on the lives of the original movie actors - for example stage Henri becomes the heir to a textile business  reflecting the life of the French actor in the film role,

However, whereas the movie kept references to the past war with a light touch, the stage scenario digs into the civil strife which erupted just after the Nazis were routed.

Robert Fairchild, a New York Ballet principal, cuts an energetic figure as Jerry from the first falling under Paris's spell and then the spell of gamine Lise - Leanne Cope from the Royal Ballet. Both have voices which can hold their own in a selection of Gershwin Brothers' songs. Zoe Rainey's American patroness and would-be love interest of Jerry Milo certainly has the voice and tap dance prowess to make her mark.

You can't really go wrong with the Gershwin songbook, although the stage transfer jettisons some  elements in the movie songlist to bring in other songs, often as a smoother entrée for dance routines, The major omissions being Embraceable You, Nice Work If You Can Get it and Love Is Here To Stay.

In comes  I've Got Beginner's Luck, The Man I Love, Liza, Shall We Dance, Fidgety Feet, Who Cares?, For You, For Me, Forever More, But Not For Me and They Can't Take That Away From Me. But comparing songs is like trying to tell the difference between identical Russian dolls. There are always equal delights to emerge.

While the songs remain tender and exuberant, the wavering accents jarred a little with your reviewing pas de deux of TLT and her deux chevaux, where we just willed the singers to drop them. The movie used real French voices. When "Jerry" sounded like "Cheri" in the stage version, we thought we'd wandered into a French literary maze of musical theatre sources!

We did wonder why they hadn't tried a more sophisticated linguistic trick of making the French speak without accents amongst themselves and then switchng to accents when talking in English. Used wisely this could also extract a lot of comedy. 

Anyway, oddly, despite the apparent simplification of the Lerner's original  screenplay,  the movie script of An American In Paris still wins hands down for us. For we feel it's always dangerous to underestimate the savviness of a movie production team which judges correctly the mood of a nation, says what the writers want to say and finds the - er - mot juste.

And after all, movie director Minnelli, with the same producer Arthur Freed, had previously directed Meet Me In St Louis, a seemingly light confection nevertheless containing a visceral sequence of a child full of fear running in striped pyjamas  - in 1944 when noone supposedly knew anything about concentration camps. This was a scene Minnelli fought to have in the movie.

Some of the changes for the stage are interesting but superfluous. Surely the altering of Lise's surname to Dassin is a gesture towards blacklisted American movie director Jules Dassin who went into exile in France with his family? It's not quite as glaring as the Lise/Liza shoo-in but it indicates a certain self-indulgence.

Even so, the magnificent ballet sequences and Gershwin songs with arrangements by Rob Fisher, like Paris itself, can more than survive a bit of accent mangling. As Paris, New York and London prepare for a new configuration of their relationship, it's a joy that some things are here to stay and it's an amber/green for a marriage of music and dance with oodles of joie de vivre.

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