When attending a Broadway show, I try not to indulge in unreasonable expectations. I wish only to be swept away, rendered speechless, tingling from head to toe… Is this asking too much?
Not for the artistic team behind the new stage version of An American in Paris, which graciously delivers on all counts. The deliciously choreography-driven production boasts a cast brimming with triple-threats, a seamlessly woven score, costumes, and set pieces with lives of their own — and oh, what a story! Rather than imitate the iconic 1951 film, writer Craig Lucas and director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon conspired to craft a new take on the narrative that honors the essence of the Academy Award-winning original and radiates the spirit of Hollywood’s classic musical era. The resulting experience not only swept me away; it swept me in.
Set just after the Second World War, the story follows aspiring artist and American expat Jerry Mulligan, distinguished but bumbling Frenchman Henri Baurel, and endearingly moody American composer Adam Hochberg in their simultaneous pursuit of ballet star on the rise Lise Dassin. Underlying this seemingly simple rom-com premise is the unstable reality of the post-war world — an atmosphere equal parts hope, fear, and confusion.
Wheeldon’s choreography for the ensemble and sets — ranging from sculptural and geometric to swirlingly chaotic — reflects the excitement and vulnerability of the period while serving as a vibrant backdrop that both anchors the story and propels it forward.
With his romantic leads, he takes a more personal approach, allowing the movement to map the course of their relationship — and in Robert Fairchild (Jerry) and Leanne Cope (Lise), Wheeldon has discovered ideal interpreters of this choreographic scheme. Cope’s impeccable technique facilitates fluid shifts between the refined, decorous air she exhibits in the ballet studio and among her surrogate family (the Baurels) and the playful, sultry movement Jerry draws from her. She shimmers with a natural charisma that sets sparks flying when paired with Fairchild’s own indisputable magnetism. Their chemistry is palpable.
Anyone who has seen Fairchild on stage as a principal with New York City Ballet is familiar with his signature irresistible élan, but to encounter him on Broadway is an undeniably elevated experience. His strong, sweet tenor voice is an absolutely delightful complement to his brilliant movement quality. Indeed, his dance technique seems to shine even brighter in combination with his sparkling vocals.
Speaking of notable male performances, Brandon Uranowitz and Max von Essen as Adam and Henri, respectively, dish out multiple show-stopping moments, including a pair of soulful duets with the exquisite Jill Paice as American socialite Milo Davenport. The understated Uranowitz is particularly captivating as our witty narrative guide, dutifully ushering us through the story even whilst he stoically relives his own heartbreak. Paice has a similar tendency to steal a scene, lending depth to a character that could have been rendered one-dimensional in less capable hands. And she is the perfect counterpart to Veanne Cox’s prim Madame Baurel, as each portrays a formidable power woman striving to carve out her ideal existence and purpose in a rapidly evolving environment.
Even beyond the robust clutch of main players, this is a true ensemble production, with every cast member energetically pulling his or her weight and laying claim to at least one exceptional incident. Stand-outs in the corps include Sara Esty, a former Miami City Ballet soloist who is clearly relishing the chance to let loose (without sacrificing an ounce of her crisp technique), and Attila Joey Csiki, a long-time Lar Lubovitch dancer whose eye-catchingly lithe, dynamic movements seem to set the pace for many of the group numbers.
Spectacular as the entire staging is, the crowning achievement rightfully remains the 18-minute ballet near the end of the second act. Costume designer Bob Crowley’s primary color palette makes Wheeldon’s invigorating choreography positively pop, and the orchestra’s lively ownership of Gershwin’s celebrated score leaves nothing to be desired.
In short… Well, who could ask for anything more?