“Fresh as paint” kept buzzing through my head as I sat, enthralled, as this latest “new musical based on a famous film” sang and danced its way across the boards of the famous Palace Theatre. Soon I suspect there won’t be any famous films left that might inspire the current crop of musical theatre creators. Of course we can’t be certain; perhaps even now there are writers, directors, even stars planning to add song and dance to Cool Hand Luke, Stage Coach and Dark Victory. But we must be grateful that Playwright Craig Lucas, Director/Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, Arranger and Musical Supervisor Rob Fisher, and Set and Costume Designer Bob Crowley got together with just such a plan, and somehow managed to put together a consortium of several dozen producers to guide it to the Palace, where if there is any justice in the world, it should remain — forever.
You see it is “inspired by” the MGM film of the same name. The Arthur Freed unit at MGM during Hollywood’s golden years was the most creative and successful in all the world of motion pictures. In 1951 Gene Kelly was at the peak of his considerable popularity, and he and Freed convinced big boss Louis B. Mayer – and his associates – to ok a project very close to Kelly’s heart. Kelly, Vincente Minnelli and Alan Jay Lerner, all riding high from recent successes in film and on Broadway, wanted permission to film an original story with music from the George Gershwin estate, one which would bravely stretch the boundaries of movie musicals by, among other things, including an uninterrupted seventeen minute ballet. The movie was made, it won eight Oscars including Best Picture, and has remained one of our most cherished musical movies. All this made it a great challenge to anyone attempting to transform it into a vibrant and original stage musical that didn’t bring to mind Gigi, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, State Fair, A Time for Singing, and so many other pale imitations of the films that inspired them. To get to the point, this team has met that challenge, and come up with a lollapalooza of an “original musical” that should delight the whole family, cynics, and sourpusses included.
For starters, book writer Craig Lucas has put Alan Lerner’s script into a blender, and extracted from it the bare bones of a story about an ex-GI named Jerry Mulligan, a would-be painter, who decides to remain in Paris for a while at the end of World War II. He has a friend there, a composer now named Adam Hochberg (I say “now named” because in the Lerner screenplay he is Adam Cook). There will be a girl named Lise Dassin thrown into the mix (she was called Lise Bouvier in the Lerner version) and a friend of Adam’s (Henri Baurel, from an aristocratic background, but stuck with a dream of becoming a professional singer). The name changes are not arbitrary. Mr. Lucas has background stories for his principal characters that enrich them, make them more substantial, for he’s also moved the time slot to 1945 when more than memories linger in the aftermath of the just ended great war. The show begins with the tearing down of the Nazi flags, the early days of recovery, and gives weight to many of the references to what’s gone by, to the hope for a better future for all of these interestingly fleshed out characters.
But wait! I haven’t mentioned that Jerry and Lise are played by two who are new to Broadway, both from the world of ballet. He is Robert Fairchild, principal dancer with New York Ballet since 2009, and she is Leanne Cope, trained in the Royal Ballet School and graduated into the company in 2003. Both are making their Broadway debuts, and both are absolutely smashing. He is movie star handsome who is exciting from the moment he opens his mouth. That he can sing, act with great conviction and charm, is a bonus we hadn’t expected. When he dances, which is often, he almost seems animated, for no one in recent memory on Broadway can compare.
Ms. Cope manages to capture all the charm that Leslie Caron brought to the role in the movie, but Caron was French and Ms. Cope is not, so this in itself is an achievement. But like her partner in dance, she seems to float effortlessly throughout the evening, and in the end the two created the kind of magic we just don’t see all that often in the post Golden Age of Musical Theatre.
In support, Brandon Uranowitz as Adam Hochberg, now renamed to make him Jewish in the role Oscar Levant inhabited in the film, is far more than the wisecracker Levant played.
Max Von Essen wraps himself around Henri, and stops the show with the fantasized version of “A Stairway to Paradise” which Mr. Wheeldon and his collaborators have designed around him.
Veanne Cox is playing a character not in the film, Madame Baurel, Henri’s mother, and she extracts from it juicy contradictions, a woman freed of many of the restrictions life forced upon her during the war. To watch her cut loose in a moment when she can no longer contain herself, is pure joy.
Jill Paice, who played Scarlett O’Hara in the London musical Gone With the Wind, is now a wealthy art patron with a yen for Mr. Fairchild. She has taken on the musicalized role Nina Foch played so well in the MGM movie, and she has made it her own.
The brilliant ensemble of singers and dancers, as well as the magical projections of 59 Productions complete this bundle of contributors to the most exciting musical of the season. So far — we still have a couple waiting in the wings. But this American in Paris will be hard to top. Here I am, still aglow on the morning after.
What’s most impressive about this lovely show is that it never settles for the obvious. American in Paris is filled with the imagination and talent of its creators who have truly transformed a marvelous movie into a magnificent Broadway musical, one you will remember long after its attractive central couple finally find each other, having earned their happy ending in a most dazzling and entertaining way.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.