by Nita Congress · April 23, 2015
The Company of An American In Paris | Angela Sterling
Achingly lovely, An American in Paris soars, thrills, and spellbinds. I have rarely gone to the theater and moaned—audibly and repeatedly. But there is so much to marvel at! And it is gone so quickly: moaning with delight and despair at theatrical evanescence is an entirely appropriate response.
With the sensibilities and vocabulary of ballet—not surprising, given that Christopher Wheeldon, currently artistic Associate of the Royal Ballet, directs and choreographs—An American in Paris is stunningly, superlatively, spectacular. In the sense of a feast for the eyes. Almost every scene is literally a framed picture. À la Sunday in the Park with George, pencil sketches are roughly blocked in, quickly colored, pieces of sets move, build, combine, connect, and voilà! we are in a new and marvelous place: part dream, part real world. And the sumptuous lighting enhances this effect.
And while we’re talking sumptuous, let’s not overlook the costumes. Elegant and character-enhancing for the principals to be sure, but—that ballet sensibility again—what treasures are to be found on the chorus as well. My favorite, and a source of much moaning, was a set of some six or eight glorious pleated three-quarter-length white dresses trimmed in complementing pastels that appeared during the course of the long production number “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck.” When the dancers twirled, the pleats did what pleats are meant to do, creating a virtual confection of swirling, billowy delight. And there is no stinting on accessories: Milo’s jewelry, in particular, was nothing short of exquisite.
But of course, there is more than spectacle to be marveled at. There’s all that beautiful Gershwin music to relish. Days after seeing the show, these timeless melodies are playing in my head. And it was such a joy to hear not just the standards we came to this show expecting—“I Got Rhythm,” “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”—but also less-familiar songs—“Fidgety Feet”—and unexpected old friends—“Liza,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” For me, though, the real pleasure was to hear so much of Gershwin’s orchestral pieces—“Concerto in F,” “Second Prelude,” “Cuban Overture,” and, of course, “An American in Paris.” It did not escape me that the arrangers had deliberately selected many works in a minor key, creating a haunting, longing, wistful backdrop against which to project their story.
As to that story, no, its details are not the same as the iconic movie’s, but that really doesn’t matter. There’s a new subplot explaining Henri and Lise’s relationship, and introducing Henri’s wonderfully rigid mother; Adam (the Oscar Levant character) is, like his two buddies, also in love with Lise; Milo, Jerry’s patron, is a little less predatory and a lot more a frustrated feminist looking to make a mark in a man’s world; the set piece is not the masked ball, but a ballet jointly developed by the lead characters and starring Lise, who is a dancer; and there’s more about the Resistance, the Nazis, and social expectations.
But none of this matters, because the theme of the show is the same as the movie. This is all about love: specifically, passionate, fervent, ardent young love. And the production brilliantly contextualizes this intensity by beginning the play with the end of the war. We open in a drab, brown-gray, war-torn Paris, filled with ugly street violence and numbed, deadened citizens and soldiers. And then the armistice and the end of war, and the beginning of hope and joy, and Jerry sees Lise. And the set shifts, and the colors suffuse, and the music swells, and we experience, along with the characters, the hectic gaiety, the frantic desire to feel good again. It is an amazing opening sequence, evoking the same bittersweet contrast of youth and death that powers On the Town.
They are so young, so vital; and this is all so fleeting. Every production element whispers this message. No wonder moaning is the correct response.