Who would have thought that it was possible to improve on Gene Kelly’s filmic masterpiece? Well director/choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon has taken up the challenge, combined blissful dance with the Gershwin’s classic songs and jazz-infused classical compositions with Bob Crowley’s elegant set and costume designs to create this exquisite theatrical presentation which at times feels like a ballet with words and music
Craig Lucas has given the storyline a slightly darker undertone by extending the back-stories of the major characters, and setting the action in Paris immediately after the Nazi occupation during the Second World War, which provides unexpected parallels with the current situation in the Ukraine, referenced briefly in the opening sequence by the treatment of a Nazi collaborator. This coincidence could not possibly have been foreseen when this production was first conceived in 2014.
The production commences with the stage bare except for a piano. A Gershwin-like character named Adam Hochberg takes the stage and begins to narrate the story. As he does Gershwin’s familiar music begins to take over and the stage is filled with swirling scenery, busy Parisians, and glimpses of brief accidental encounters between a young serviceman and a beautiful young woman who keeps disappearing among the crowd.
This is the first of several balletic sequences sprinkled throughout the show, for which Bob Crowley’s finely choreographed scenic set-pieces blend seamlessly with the ensemble of superb dancers to create a dreamy filmic background for the story of a young recently discharged American serviceman who arrives in Paris to fulfil his dream of becoming an artist, but who soon finds himself in competition with two other suitors for the love a beautiful young ballerina.
I took advantage of the Wednesday and Saturday matinee schedules to see both casts. Australian Ballet Principal, Dimity Azoury, comes from Queanbeyan, and as a Queanbeyanite myself, I was keen to see her response to the challenges of musical theatre.
Azoury, together with her Australian Ballet colleague, Cameron Holmes, alternate performances of the starring roles with the original Broadway and West End stars, New York City Ballet principal, Robbie Fairchild, and Royal Ballet dancer, Leanne Cope, and I was keen to see both casts.
Fairchild and Cope originated the roles of Jerry Mulligan and ballet dancer, Lise Dassin, and have performed these roles around the world since then, including on Broadway, London’s West End and in Paris. Miraculously their performances seem just as fresh as if they were performing them for the first time.
Both are wonderful dancers. Handsome, elegant and romantic with more than a touch of the Gene Kelly joie de vivre, and an even better singing voice, Robbie Fairchild was a joy to watch throughout. Whether leading the company through the frenetic Fidgety Feet or romancing Cope in the gorgeous An American in Paris ballet which climaxes the show, Fairchild’s superb technique and easy stage presence makes his every move a joy to watch.
Similarly Cope, paying tribute to the gamin quality of Leslie Caron without copying her, imbuing every step with subtle nuance, most particularly during the An American in Paris ballet when her subtle gear-change from dancing well to dancing brilliantly as if inspired when Fairchild’s Jerry Mulligan suddenly appears as the lead dancer in the ballet, is wonderfully depicted. She’s also a lovely actor with an interesting timbre in her voice which adds an affecting fragility to her rendition of the Gershwin classic, The Man I Love.
Having been brought to tears by the masterful performances of Fairchild and Cope at the matinee, I could hardly wait to get back into the theatre to see Dimity Azoury and Cameron Holmes take on these roles. I was not disappointed because both had been encouraged to bring their own interpretations to the roles rather than copy the originals. Their choices were intelligent and appropriate, creating a delightful partnership.
Azoury too is a superb dancer and her performance as Lise Dassin, while not yet as nuanced as Cope, was none the less similarly affecting. Considering she has spent her entire career thus far transmitting her emotions through dance alone, her singing, especially for the The Man I Love solo was sweet and delicately phrased, as was her delightful French-accented dialogue.
Similarly Cameron Holmes brought a youthful exuberance to his performance creating an impetuous Jerry Mulligan. Though short in stature, Holmes is a fire-cracker dancer and his sequence of flying grand jetes as he circled the ensemble in the An American in Paris ballet drew enthusiastic, spontaneous applause from the audience, and his partnering of Azoury was affectingly passionate and thoughtful.
But An American in Paris is much more than just a two-person show. As wonderful as those two pairings are, they are surrounded by a superb ensemble cast of outstanding actors, singers and dancers, among which Ashleigh Rubenach is a stand-out as the pushy glamorous American millionairess who you’d love to hate, but can’t help loving.
Jonathan Hickey as the charming, ironic Gershwinish composer who lacks the confidence to declare his love of Lise Dassin; fine-voiced Sam Ward as Henri Baurel, the wealthy Jewish would-be entertainer who actually becomes engaged to Lise Dassin, but for the wrong reasons; Anne Wood effortlessly capturing the laughs as Henri’s dignified, overbearing mother, Madame Baurel; and David Whitney as Henri’s supportive father, Monsieur Baurel all offer beautifully modulated performances.
Add to this an ensemble of superlative dancers, including another Australian Ballet soloist, Jake Mangakahia, impressive as Lise Dassin’s partner in the An American in Paris ballet, and of course George and Ira Gershwin lush score, brilliantly adapted and arranged by Rob Fisher, and given a lush performance by an excellent Sydney Orchestra under the attentive baton of Music Director, Vanessa Scammell, and you have a production guaranteed to send you out into the busy Sydney traffic with a spring in your step and perhaps a tear in your eye.
Who could ask for anything more?
An American in Paris
Theatre Royal Sydney, King Street, Sydney
Performance: Wednesday 4 May 2022
Season continues to 12 June 2022
Following its Sydney season, An American in Paris will play the Crown Theatre Perth from 9 July 2022 and Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide from 24 January 2023. For more information, visit: www.americaninparis.com.au for details.
Image: An American in Paris Ensemble – photos by Darren Thomas
Review: Bill Stephens OAM