Sunday, March 22, 2015
An American in Paris
I actually hesitated before writing this review of An American in Paris because: 1. It's still officially in "previews" although the prices that are charged are the same as a regular show; and 2. maybe some time and distance will soften my stance on the show. But then I decided no, better to just lay it all out.
First, a little background: I am a huge fan of Robert Fairchild, the NYCB dancer who is the leading man in An American in Paris. I knew when he made his Broadway debut that I'd be there, no matter what. I am an even bigger fan of the classic Gershwin songbook and film score. I've been impressed with much of Christopher Wheeldon's choreography. A dancer I adore dancing (and singing) to music I loved -- who could ask for anything more?
An American in Paris turned out to be one of my bitterest disappointments. Even more so since this was my first "treat" to myself after finally landing a decent job. There was so much potential to make a great show that it's unbelievable how many wrong turns were taken. I guess I'll just go down the list, one by one, of ways An American in Paris turned out to be a disappointment:
1. THE MUSIC.
You're going to shake your head at this. How can they mess up the Gershwin ballet suite, the great American songbook, the Concerto in F? Well, it's possible. The musical arrangements were a travesty. They were relentlessly brassy and pushy -- they managed to make classics like "Embraceable You" and "S'Wonderful" sound irritating. I wasn't expecting Ella Fitzgerald but I also thought that the Gershwin music would be played with some care. I guessed wrong.
I know comparisons are odious but Hershey Kay's orchestral arrangements for Balanchine's Who Cares? are superior in every way. They at least allow the Gershwin music to breathe.
2. THE BOOK.
Craig Lucas has decided to "fill in" some of the original film's paper-thin plots with more modern jokes and storylines. Jerry Mulligan is still an ex-pat/artist, but Adam is now Adam Hochberg, a Jewish composer with a gimped leg from the war, and Lise is a dancer. Jerry is the scenic designer and Adam is the composer for a ballet that's commissioned by Lise's guardians, the Baurels. Henri is the Baurels' son and still Lise's suitor. And Milo is still a rich patron of Jerry's art.
The main issue with the book is how they handle the problem of Henri. Henri in the first act is the constant source of "tee hee, he's gay" jokes. Which would be okay as a plot point because after all (spoiler alert!) Jerry has to end up with Lise. There's a big punch-line where Henri alone compliments a woman on her fabulous shoes. I thought some of the gay jokes were a bit too modern (Henri's mother asks him whether he's simply not interested in the "fairer sex") but whatever, comic relief and all that.
The whole issue is that in the second act, Henri switches sexuality. His gayness is dropped completely and he becomes a bit like the Paul Henreid character in Casablanca -- a noble (if stolid) resistance fighter. And the reason Lise feels indebted to Henri is because (spoiler alert!) she's Jewish and her parents were killed by the Nazis but Henri hid her during WWII. Henri says he'd "die" for Lise. In light of this total switch in characterization, the treatment of Henri in the second act by Adam and Jerry borders on cruel and uncomfortable and the gay jokes in Act One seem cheap and pointless.
The characterization of Adam was also a problem. Adam has been re-written to be a sour, hard-drinking Debbie Downer. Come on. This is a musical comedy. Actually have some, you know, comedy. Even the character of Milo is neither fun nor amusing -- in this musical book she's a completely lovely lady whom Jerry spurns because she's not Lise.
The character development for Jerry and Lise was always going to be weak -- it was in the 1951 film as well -- but I didn't expect it to be that weak. Jerry pleads and Lise pouts. That's about it. A shame because Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope have real charm.
3. THE CASTING.
Robert Fairchild (Jerry) and Leanne Cope (Lise) are terrific dancers and game singers. Fairchild in particular has a wistful, airy tenor that adds to his boy-next-door appeal. But with that being said, it was obvious that the show decided to cast around their singing limitations. Most of their singing numbers end as ensembles and Cope tries with "Man I Love" but can't quite cut the mustard. This splitting of the cast into the "the singers" and "the dancers" means that much of the Gershwin songbook is squandered in meaningless throwaway moments. Max von Essen (Henri) and Brandon Uranowitz (Adam) probably do the most actual singing but their characters are somewhat peripheral. Jill Paice (Milo Davenport) is a terrific actress and singer, so the choice not to give her much to sing is a puzzlement. I thought maybe giving Paice a Gershwin number would have added depth to Milo's character.
Veanne Cox and as Madame Baurel is also wasted -- she's actually a good singer, but she has almost nothing to sing either. She does do a good job as the shrewish Madame Baurel, and provides some much-needed comic relief.
The show probably would have been better off either having Jerry and Lise sing more (their voices are not bad -- not true Broadway voices, but acceptable) or having more of their scenes be pure-dance. As it stands right now it's a mish-mash.
4. THE CHOREOGRAPHY.
This part disappointed me the most. I thought that if the singing and the book disappointed, the dancing would at least blow me away. But Wheeldon's choreography is for the most part incredibly formulaic Broadway steps. It's background dance choreography that you see in, well, pretty much every Broadway show. For those familiar with Wheeldon's ballet choreography, this is a disappointment -- you expect more.
The worst moment was the "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" number in which the charming tap-dancing of Max von Essen is marred by vulgar Busby-Berkeley line-dancing showgirls who quite frankly look like strippers and (even worse) an interruption by Brandon Uranowitz that makes no sense as isn't Adam supposed to have a gimped leg? A moment that might have humanized Henri and also showed off Max von Essen's talents is wasted by a whole bunch of extraneous noise.
More shockingly, the incredible dance talents of Fairchild and Cope are squandered as they (believe it or not) don't have much notable dancing. Oh sure there's a lot of dancing -- off-centered pirouettes for Fairchild because he's, you know, a jazzy kind of guy, and Cope gets lifted over and over again with her beautiful legs sticking out like arrows -- but it's empty choreography. Wheeldon is overfond of a one move in particular -- it's the one where the man lifts the woman to about shoulder length and twirls her around. Use it once, beautiful. Use it twice, beautiful. Use it 100 times, tiresome and tedious. There's one lovely moment that has so much potential but is wasted -- Jerry and Lise have a clandestine moment and dance to "Liza." I thought this would be a big dance production number -- maybe to a medley of Gershwin music. A moment like Astaire/Rogers "Cheek to Cheek" or "Never Gonna Dance." But nope. Jerry gives Lise a few twirls and bye-bye.
Only the final "An American in Paris" fantasy ballet (pictured above) sequence remotely lives up to Wheeldon's potential. I wasn't crazy about some of the corps dancing that Wheeldon has for the ballet but the moments between Jerry and Lise finally have some real choreography. There were even several steps that stood out to me, one being Jerry blissfully putting his cheek on Lise's leg. But it's frankly too little, too late. (The show, FYI, runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes).
5. THE SILVER LININGS
The show is aesthetically pleasing -- sets and costumes by Bob Crowley are charming and evocative of post-war France. The projections are somewhat busy but do a good job of switching scenes with minimum fuss.
As mentioned, the cast is terrific. Fairchild really does have the Gene Kelly boy-next-door appeal, and Leanne Cope has gamine charm. Max von Essen is a great singer and dancer.
But as I said, An American in Paris is all about squandered opportunities. There is so much potential for greatness. But when the lights dimmed yesterday, all I could think was "thank god it's finally over."