One of the all time favourite quotes about the acting profession comes courtesy of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. It likens actors to mushrooms ‘because you’re kept in the dark most of the time and every so often somebody throws a bucket of s*** at you’. But comes the production when the joy of performing explodes over the footlights and embraces a whole audience. That show was the final preview for An American in Paris at the Dominion theatre on Monday.
When Patricia booked tickets for this reinterpretation of the 1951 MGM musical, I secretly whispered ‘good luck’. An American in Paris is not just any musical: it is up there with Singin in the Rain, Carousel and Oklahoma! as arguably the greatest musical film of all time. It was the love child of three of Hollywood’s legends: producer Arthur Freed, director Vincente Minnelli and star Gene Kelly with music by George and Ira Gershwin and a book by Alan J. Lerner. No pressure there then.
One would imagine director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon was the fool who rushed in where angels fear to tread. But I have to tell you he has found talent as original as Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in New York City Ballet principal Robert Fairchild and Royal Ballet School-trained Leanne Cope as leads Jerry Mulligan and Lise Dassin.
Leanne Cope is uncannily similar to Leslie Caron (who was there for the opening night) with her elfin black bob and delicate body exquisitely dressed in a series of swirling, simple New Look dresses. Look at the poster, clock the yellow dress and get back to me about La La Land by the way. But I digress. Cope is a sublime, expressive dancer as lithe as a cat and light as a feather. We were in Row D and I can tell you her face was a picture of passion and joy for the entire production.
The Gershwins gave Wheeldon an embarrassment of riches to bestow on the principals and I have to say as a very particular musical queen the orchestrations for I Got Rhythm, The Man I Love, S’Wonderful, They Can’t Take That Away from Me, Liza, I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise and the final ballet were the best I’ve ever heard. Mrs T, Scott and I were a bit perturbed by Fidgety Feet – a number lifted from Oh Kay! – but that’s a rare dud from George and Ira that doesn’t travel well into the 21st century.
Without spoiling the surprise, Wheeldon sensibly leaves Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris Toulouse-Lautrec dream ballet sequence where it belongs on film. His choreography and the Kandinsky sets and costumes had the audience on its feet. Unlike the movie, Lise is given the starring role in the ballet but there was spontaneous applause when the dashing, dishy Robert Fairchild performed a series of grand jetes around Cope that reminded me of Nureyev never mind Gene Kelly.
I could have kissed Wheeldon for giving us a Stairway to Paradise that almost knocked Vincente Minnelli’s version into a cocked hat. Those white ostrich feather fans could have been a bit more swishy but that’s what a RuPaul’s Drag Race addict would say isn’t it?
Let’s get the nonsense out of the way. The plot is as creaky as a 70-year-old chorine’s knees and the sub-plot whereby Lise is romanced by a lugubrious pianist (David Seadon-Young) and an ostensibly gay Parisian (Haydn Oakley) with aspirations to be Charles Aznavour isn’t Madame Bovary. Jane Asher’s Madame Baurel was channelling Dame Edith Evans and she was clearly having an absolute ball.
In many ways the book got in the way of the dance. I sometimes longed for An American in Paris to be danced through in the spirit of a Matthew Bourne interpretation of a classic ballet. I genuinely didn’t understand the lavender-tinged Henri Baurel character either. If I were Wheeldon I’d have given him one of the waiters in the cafe with buns of steel to run off with at the end of Act 2. But it is churlish to criticise such an overwhelmingly life-affirming display of song and dance.
An American in Paris is a terribly busy show with a cast of thousands dashing from wing to wing dressed as gendarmes, riding onion-strewn bicycles wielding umbrellas while huge mirrored flats on casters whistled past. The chorus must have the reflexes of Ninjas not to topple like skittles with all that scenery flying. This is the cast’s compliment.
An American in Paris will be as big a hit in the West End as it was on Broadway and in Paris. How the cast can sing and dance eight shows a week is beyond. You really want to see Fairchild and Cope dance the roles they created but, that said, I’ve got a fairly good record of ‘star is born’ productions when the understudy goes on what with Sunset Boulevard and Funny Girl last year.
So cast and crew of An American in Paris, we salute you for taking on the Minnelli-Freed-Kelly MGM triumvirate and producing an original work that gave so much pleasure to the Dominion audience. The standing ovation was deserved and the smile on Leanne Cope’s face could have powered the national grid.
H and I have four hours of Handel at the ENO on Friday. Wish me luck.