An American in Paris in London. That’s the situation at the Dominion Theatre for the time being, as Christopher Wheeldon’s acclaimed musical, having played in Paris and on Broadway, takes up residence in the West End until at least late September.
Wheeldon’s production, which weaves music and lyrics from George and Ira Gershwin together with a new book by Craig Lucas, was nominated 12 times at the 2015 Tony Awards, scooping up four wins, notably for Wheeldon’s ballet-infused choreography and Bob Crowley’s design. It arrives in the West End with both its leads in place: New York City Ballet’s Robert Fairchild and the Royal Ballet’s Leanne Cope.
Can Wheeldon’s production survive its hop across the pond or should it jump on a plane back to New York a.s.a.p?
Does An American in Paris fill the sizeable shoes of its predecessor at the Dominion, The Bodyguard?
Does Crowley’s design paint a picturesque portrait of Paris, or do the charms of the City of Lights elude him?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
An American in Paris – A musical in London
The lightweight plot of the 1951 film – an ex-soldier sings and dances his way around Paris, falling in love with a Parisian as he does so – has here been fleshed out by Lucas.
“Craig Lucas’ book does everything to give substance to the movie’s paper-thin story”, explains Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★★). “We still see an ex-GI and would-be artist, Jerry Mulligan, falling in love with Parisian Lise. But there are now two rivals for Lise’s affections, in the shape of an aspiring nightclub singer, Henri, and a war-maimed composer, Adam”.
For some, this added meat is essential. Mark Shenton (The Stage, ★★★★★) relishes its “wistful romanticism”, Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★) enjoys the way it “adds notes of darkness to its joie de vivre”, Billington is just thankful for a “radically improved” storyline, and Eleanor Bley Griffiths (Radio Times, ★★★★★) is thrilled that “An American In Paris has gained new depths”.
But for others, it jars. Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★★) praises Lucas for “creating a stronger theatrical structure and adding period-specific elements, like haunting memories for former GI Jerry and a French Resistance subplot”, but is disappointed that “he’s unable to leave anything in the subtext”.
Siobhan Murphy (Time Out, ★★★) agrees, opining that “Craig Lucas’ earnest attempts to plump up the thin original plot make the action stutter”, as does Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★), who remarks that “meaty drama is still dismayingly subject to rationing” and that “emotion is telegraphed with brisk economy”.
This isn’t really a plot-driven show, though. As Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★★) explains, “it’s got a plot as cheesy as Brie and several characters as thin as tulle – but, poof!, who cares?”
Or, as Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★★) wails, “don’t let’s gripe about the staleness of the story and the formulaic characterisation. Let’s celebrate the repeatedly inventive staging of director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and his designer Bob Crowley”.
An American in Paris – City of lights, songs and dance
It’s true, most cannot hurl enough superlatives at Wheeldon and Crowley. As Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage, ★★★★★) asserts, “it is the design and the direction that give An American in Paris its unique texture and tone”.
Crowley’s Tony Award-winning design – a enormous, impressionist evocation of Paris in stage flats and projections – is lavished with praise in particular. According to Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★★), it is “magnificent”, and Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★★★), calls it “astonishing.” For Shenton, Crowley’s designs “ingeniously conjure a gorgeous, completely enveloping portrait of post-war Paris”.
“You leave with barely a worry in your head, a spring in your step, and an ache for Paris pumping so feverishly through every vein”, gushes Cavendish, “that if a representative from Eurostar were to lie outside, you’d follow them to St Pancras with no thought for your bank balance”.
And what about Wheeldon’s direction and choreography? Well, according to Treneman, “The dancing is, if not the star, then certainly the moon here”. Which means it’s good. Really good.
Both Billington and Crompton delight in the ease with which Wheeldon slides the show from drama to dance. He “lets dance emerge out of daily life”, according to Billington, while for Crompton, “his steps and his conception have deep refinement, but allow the emotion to emerge naturally from the action”.
Their admiration is matched elsewhere. Shenton enjoys “a dance framework that simultaneously serves the emotion and wit of the lyrics but also lets the company fly with movement to underpin it with its own effortless grace”, while for Purves, Wheeldon’s dexterity is simply “astonishing”.
Jenny Gilbert (The Arts Desk, ★★★★) labels it “the work of a seasoned master”, and Philip Fisher (British Theatre Guide) is not alone in noting that “for any dance lover, the long ballet at the end featuring the sizzling duo of Jerry and Lise at their passionate peak is likely to cause raptures”.
There’s only one small hiccup in this feast of Parisian panache, according to some. Rob Fisher’s Gershwin score, although acknowledged as packed to the gills with stone-cold stonkers by most – “beyond classic” is Ian Foster’s (There Ought To Be Clowns) phrase – is, for Swain and Hitchings at least, a little clunky.
“The extra helpings of Gershwin aren’t seamlessly integrated”, grumbles Hitchings, while Swain complains that what is “essentially a Gershwin jukebox musical” has moments of “awkward shoehorning”.
An American In Paris – Pas de Deux
And what about Fairchild and Cope, the ballet-trained protagonists in this dazzlingly designed tale of French fancies and Parisian passion? Do they catch fire or fizzle out?
It’s the former, on the whole. Shenton lauds them as “effortless singers as well as dazzling movers”, Hemming praises them both as “utterly beguiling”, and Gilbert asserts that “together, Fairchild and Cope are glorious”.
“He is ballet royalty”, writes Crompton, “a principal at New York City Ballet, yet with the sly, sexy instincts of a Broadway hoofer, soft-shoe shuffling with easy grace and burning up the stage when he jumps and turns”.
Cope, meanwhile, “oozes charisma and charm” according to West End Wilma (West End Wilma, 5 stars), is “lithe and lovely” to Treneman, “a miracle of grace” for Purves, and “gives a glorious show its gentle heart” for Crompton.
Blown away by the style and athleticism of Fairchild and Cope though most are, there are soft murmurings of scepticism over their singing and acting ability from some corners.
Letts finds Fairchild “a touch deciduous at the acting lark”, Murphy calls the pair’s singing “competent and polite rather than transporting”, while Hitchings finds them “assured rather than thrilling” performers.
An American in Paris – Is it any good?
An American in Paris has been plastered with five-star reviews, from Shenton in The Stage, Billington in the Guardian, Letts in The Daily Mail, Treneman in the Times and Crompton at What’s On Stage, among others. Tres bien, is the general conclusion.
There were a few harrumphs, but these are drops of doubt in an ocean of applause.