Theater Review: An American in Paris Has Its Pleasures, and Its Limits

Photo: Matthew Murphy

The curtain is already up at the Palace as you make your way to your seats for An American in Paris; the stage is empty except for a piano dead center. There’s no overture, and, when the show starts, no dancers either, which is quite a surprise for a production that’s directed by the ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and is nearly two-thirds dance. Instead there is just a brief and startlingly downbeat welcome from a man who wanders out to sit at that piano. (“For four years, the City of Light went dark,” he says. “Violence and swastikas in the street.”) It’s as quiet an opening as big-budget Broadway has seen since Oklahoma! with its butter churn, and it signals the show’s intention to distinguish itself in tone and pace, and in the way it conveys information, from other musical comedies. In that, it completely succeeds: With its odd combination of dour outlook and joyful movement, and its very tasteful corralling of the giddy Gershwin songs from disparate sources that constitute its score, it’s a Broadway unicorn. But whether that success itself succeeds at doing justice to the underlying material — or, more important, at making a coherent stage entertainment — is another matter. 

Begin with those swastikas: You may not remember them from the 1951 movie directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Gene Kelly. Though it, too, was set immediately after World War II, and Kelly played a recently demobilized GI, its screenplay, by Alan Jay Lerner, made not a single reference to the horrors recently endured. Craig Lucas’s book for the stage musical is steeped in those horrors. The formerly sprightly Kelly character, Jerry Mulligan, is no longer just a painter in search of inspiration, but a man trying to forget what he saw in the trenches: “Why I had to catch my buddy’s brains in my lap, I’ll never know.” He’s also no longer the narrator; that task falls to his neurotic pal Adam Hochberg, the Jewish composer played in the movie by Oscar Levant and here provided with a bum leg from battle. Their third musketeer, the Frenchman Henri Baurel, is the most bizarrely reconfigured. He still dreams of becoming an American-style song-and-dance man but now has his own secret war story, not to mention a confusing gay subtext and elaborate mommy issues. 

As in the movie, the three men all wind up, unbeknownst to each other, vying for the affection of a Parisian dancer named Lise. But within that same framework Lucas has sought to tell a more resonant story; actually, telling a story at all would be an improvement. For despite winning the Academy Award, Lerner’s screenplay was little more than a jukebox before its time, squeezing six or seven songs, plus the title ballet, into the flimsiest of excuses. Lucas’s version, involving a much larger and almost entirely different selection of Gershwin standards, tries to create tension beyond the merely rhetorical question of which man will succeed with Lise. (Hint: Not the Frenchman; not the Jew.) It is the success of the soul that interests Lucas: the way it does or does not survive atrocity. Among the first images we see in the first number, a ballet set to excerpts from the Concerto in F, is a crowd dragging a female Nazi collaborator out of hiding and cutting off her hair. When our hero appears, he does so literally creeping out from under the Tricolour just as it is replacing a Nazi flag as wide as the stage. Then he sees Lise and is smitten.

Point taken: Horror is the medium out of which joy grows. In much the way a traditional opening number would tell us what to expect over the next couple of hours (“Comedy Tonight” and “Tradition” are the classic examples), this danced introduction signals Lucas’s and Wheeldon’s intention to valorize a generic love story by viewing it as a process of creation from destruction, and to do so largely through movement. Indeed, when An American in Paris is on its feet, it’s often sublime, particularly in the more self-consciously balletic ensembles like that Concerto in F opener, and the Second Rhapsody that closes the first act, and the long title number near the end. But in part because the lead dancers — Robert Fairchild of New York City Ballet as Jerry, and Leanne Cope of the Royal Ballet as Lise — are so beautiful and natural in this material, and in part because the ballet format seems to release Wheeldon’s richest movement ideas, these more abstract evocations of the show’s themes are paradoxically the clearest and most satisfying. They demonstrate rather than explain the conflict between art as a means of helping people see the world as it is, and art as a means of helping them forget it.  

As for the more traditional musical-comedy numbers, all are well danced, especially Fairchild’s solo-with-ensemble “Fidgety Feet” and his legato duet, with Cope, of “Liza.” But while working so hard to avoid the movie’s emotional glibness, the stage musical has fallen into some of the same structural traps. “Liza,” for instance, a lovely song pulled from the Gershwin trunk, only manages to get inserted into the story here with an elaborate shoehorn. (Jerry insists on rechristening Lise, whose own sad war story can be guessed at ten paces, with a name that “sounds happier.”) And as is typical in jukebox musicals, even great songs — and there are many — feel generic when assigned to characters whose main purpose is to sing them. The actors work very hard, with varying success, to make believable figures from roles that seem like collections of symptoms with no unifying principle. Brandon Uranowitz as Adam, Veanne Cox as Henri’s mother, and Jill Paice as a rich American dilettante who fancies Jerry are at least able to suggest legible profiles. Others, including the leads, seem undone by the difficulty of creating in stillness what they manage so easily in movement. 

The result is no disaster. The attempt to merge dance storytelling with musical-theater storytelling may not always be satisfying but offers many compensations. Especially at a time when more conventional musicals aspire to the condition of high-speed sledgehammers, it is a delight to relax into a show with a dreamier pace, and with several ideas kept airborne at once. Nothing on Broadway right now looks like it, either, with its saturated primary-color light (by Natasha Katz) and with settings (by Bob Crowley) that seem to evaporate and reconfigure themselves second by second, as quick as Jerry’s sketches. (The projections are beautiful.) And the singing is mercifully free of American Idol–isms; the music as a whole, including Fairchild’s pleasing voice, is beautifully proportioned and arranged.

Yet the music is also, in a way, the source of the fundamental problem here. Most of the Gershwin numbers used were written in the 1920s, and none in the 1940s. (George died in 1937.) They are confident, enthusiastic, perhaps a little manic but never neurotic. Even the saddest one (“But Not for Me”) is playful, leavened as it is with Ira’s puns. These songs are about holding it together and moving forward; something in their DNA resists their adaptation as post-traumatic-stress anthems. And while one is always grateful to hear them and to see artists at work with serious ideas, the result seems self-cancelling. A number like “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” ought to be foolproof, but in trying to contextualize it as Henri’s nervous breakdown it fails as both spectacle and drama. Could they not have found a more vigorous middle ground? I rarely wish for bigger helpings of American vulgarity, but I left An American in Paris wondering whether it could more effectively have blown away all those clouds of gray (if not the Nazis) with a kinky boot or a confetti cannon.

An American in Paris is at the Palace.

*A version of this article appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.