In which Phil thinks he may have seen one of the best looking shows ever (and thinks he must be going soft in his old age too).
Just about filling the vast stage of the newly-refurbished Dominion Theatre, An American in Paris is based on the 1951 movie, with music and lyrics from George and Ira Gershwin respectively. It’s a big, splashy, very old-fashioned romance. If it were a stick of rock, the word “BROADWAY” would run through it.
Thankfully the two Tony-nominated New York leads, British ballerina Leanne Cope and New York City Ballet dancer Robert Fairchild have travelled with it. And travelled well. Though not at every performance. Caveat Emptor.
It’s very “French”. The show originated there, but that’s probably not where it picked up it’s French habits. Expect Parisienne cafes, French chic, stripey ‘T’ shirts, most of the Paris landmarks make cameo appearances and there’s as many stereotypes as you can shake a French stick at. Paris has suffered in the war and now suffers from an excess of Gallic clichés. It’s enough to make Marine Le Pen feel teutonic. Despite this, Jerry Mulligan, an American soldier decides to stay on in the city after the war and pursue his passion for art.
Jerry (Fairchild – superb) is far too well turned-out for a struggling artist; sketching must buy an awful lot of Omo. He wanders round Paris filling his nicely-fitted trousers and shirts most effectively. When he’s not being easy on the eye or pressing his pants he hangs out with his buddies, a wannabe song and dance man Henri (Haydn Oakley – winning) and Adam (David Seadon Young) a composer with an accent as occasional as his character limp. He scribbles in his sketchpad (incroyable) dabbles in painting (merde) before plumping for abstract stage design (outré).
He meets Lise (Cope – a delight) a shop girl-cum-ballerina with a BIG FUTURE and a BIG SECRET and falls for her. But she’s not that interested. Or is she? How could she not be? Unfortunately she is about to become engaged to his bud Henri. Oops. Oh, and there’s rich, attractive Milo Davenport (Zoë Rainey – very likeable), who somehow – when not changing from one fancy frock to another – finds time to patronise the arts and nurture Jerry’s “talent” whilst hoping to find out what’s inside those crisply pressed trews.
Henri’s parents are wealthy. His maman is portrayed by the elegant Jane Asher in her factory setting of “hauteur” and with an accent that takes us on a Grand Tour of Europe finally touching down somewhere between the white cliffs and ‘Allo ‘Allo. Phil was willing her to say “Let zem eat cake”.
The whole show is beautifully costumed and designed by Bob Crowley. And though video projection (59 Productions) is sometimes a poor substitute for real sets the marriage of the two here is often a knockout, especially under the gorgeous lighting of Natasha Katz. From the effectively simple Tricolore opening to the ballet showstopper, Christopher Wheeldon‘s production rarely looks less than stunning.
Backstreets and boulevards swoop in with projected (appropriately sketchy) doodles appearing on them and moving in perfect time with the floating scenery. All this gets stripped away to reveal a bare stage dominated by projected brightly-hued abstracts. The colour palette is sumptuous throughout. Phil, for once, will overlook a persistent park bench that kept appearing, and not just in full physical manifestation. Phil’s digital park bench virginity was violated.
The Gershwin score sounds heavenly. How could it not? Gershwin is an anagram of Whingers!* Jon Weston deserves to stand up and take a bow for immaculate sound design. Barely a word is lost. The conductor looked as if he was having a ball. Wheeldon’s choreography is crisp, occasionally witty, and never better than when performed by the splendid leads.
So, superlatives almost all the way then? Ah, not quite, there’s a very big but lurking among the more shapely butts fannying around on stage. Thing is, it’s also often rather dull. Despite the Act 1 standout of “I Got Rhythm”, and the nimbleness of the dance it’s a less-than-nimble plod to get to the interval.
We never expect that much from musical theatre books (which should probably be called pamphlets anyway), and here Craig Lucas tosses in some post-Nazi occupation frou frou to beef up a waffer thin story. We can live with characters with the depth of a Crêpe Suzette if only Lucas had provided some laughs.
Patience is required between the big numbers. And though Act 2 is considerably better, especially the eye-popping transition into “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” it turns out to be a number posing as a full-blown tap routine. We were willing it to become the showstopper that it cruelly teased us it might become.
But perhaps the biggest surprise was the 14 minute ballet sequence towards the end. Phil’s a tad bah-humbuggery about ballet and had been slightly dreading it, but it looks dazzling with its Mondrian-inspired costumes and crisp clean lighting and design. Completely mesmerising. An ex-professional go-go dancer (with a taste for ballet) in Phil’s entourage gave it an enormous thumbs up, though that may well have been one of her own dance moves.
And whilst we ask ourselves the question,”How do they keep Jerry’s trousers so white?” we also have quite a conundrum for the Whinger’s ratings factory. Definitely dance 10, looks 10, book 3.
The over-praised, but enjoyable enough La La Land, rips off, err, lovingly pays homage to AAIP which won the Academy Award for best picture. A feat La La briefly imitated. Ultimately both ended up with six oscars.
Even its ad campaign (right) has echoes of the Broadway show’s poster.
The show may overflow with style, but at the preview we attended the gent’s urinals were overflowing with something else.
*George and Ira Gershwin is an anagram of “Adore naggier Whingers” and “Dear or Ageing Whingers”. Perfect.