A magnificent piece of stagecraft opens the orchestral work-turned-movie-turned ballet-infused musical theatre show An American in Paris. Jonathan Hickey sits alone at a spotlit piano dwarfed by the darkness of the theatre. He portrays Adam Hochberg, our narrator, an American Jewish man and gifted musician with a wounded leg and heart. He reminds us that while the war may be over, with Paris of 1945 finally liberated, there’s no magic switch to make everything right after this nightmarish cataclysm. The city is still standing, but its citizens are starving and great swathes of the country lie in ruins.
Setting the scene for us, Adam and his piano are then magically whisked away as the first jaw-dropping use of the production’s vast digital sets bathes the theatre in hellfire. The terrifying red of Nazi flags that sweep upwards to the heavens are seconds later pulled down and replaced by the Tricolore. This digital iteration, conjured by set and costume designer Bob Crowley, is seamlessly replaced by a physical French flag borne aloft by the gifted (and marvelously attired) ensemble. Suddenly, the computer-generated backdrop depicts a phalanx of five fighter jets flying high over l’Arc de Triomphe.
This moment is our goosebump-inducing introduction to dashing star Robbie Fairchild. He plays American GI Jerry Mulligan – famously depicted by Gene Kelly in the Oscar-laden 1951 movie by Vincente Minnelli – who turns to the audience with a jaunty salute. Fairchild, a former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, was inspired to pursue his dreams by Kelly’s silken moves. He’s the perfect pick for a show that lovingly embraces its musical theatre, ballet and orchestral influences in a razzmatazz song and dance show that includes swinging numbers like ‘Fidgety Feet’ and the title track.
Fairchild originated the role in the musical adaptation inspired by both the film and the original musical composition by the Gershwin brothers. It’s written and directed by Christopher Wheeldon – a celebrated contemporary ballet choreographer on the British scene – with a book by Craig Lucas. Wheeldon’s assisted locally by associate director Dontee Kiehn, her co-choreographer Stuart Winter, dance director Sean Maurice Kelly and musical director Vanessa Scammel. The Australian Ballet artistic director David Hallberg is also involved in this toe-tapping collaboration with GWB Entertainment.
Projecting the kilowatt-charisma that landed him a Tony Award, Fairchild’s the very picture of a golden age Hollywood hunk. He perfectly knits the athletic grace of ballet with the spunk of Kelly. English ballet star Leanne Cope is an immaculate coupling in the role of shop attendant and aspiring dancer Lise Dassin. She captures Jerry’s heart when he first spies her on Paris’s still fractious but beautiful streets, enchantingly summoned by those vast digital backdrops.
The role is depicted by the sublime Leslie Caron in the movie, and Cope does her proud with an enchanting performance that allows us into Lise’s doubts. She constantly second-guesses whom she can let into her confidence, holding Jerry at arm’s length because of an unspoken agreement to which she feels honour-bound. (Australian Ballet stars Dimity Azoury and Cameron Holmes are their alternates).
Although they originated as dancers, they also give great lungs (especially Fairchild) and winning performances as will they, won’t they, would-be lovers. Into the mix, throw the heartsore Jonathan, who falls thick into a fast friendship with Jerry but is also secretly mooning after Lise. Neither man realises the other’s predicament, which is triple troubled by their other mate, Frenchman Henri Baurel (Sam Ward, a fabulously scene-stealing card), who’s building up the will to propose to Lise. As if this weren't already a fine mess, glamorous American philanthropist Milo Davenport is also waiting in the wings. As played with winning sparkle by an impressive Ashleigh Rubenach, Milo’s apparently altruistic interest in Jerry and his artistic aspirations is, of course, also romantic.
There’s not much more to the plot, though there is a touch more, in fairness, than the film. As much classic showbiz whimsy as this production maintains, there are also some somewhat dated, squirmish moments of machismo entitlement in Lise and Jerry's courtship that sit uncomfortably in today's context. But their chemistry is magnetic, and the almost two and a half-hour show with interval whisks by on the uplifting spirit of its joie de vivre and spectacular set-pieces, including the showstopping ballet scene that formed the movie’s grand finale. It’s sumptuous stuff that easily overcomes occasionally wobbly accent work, sweeps you off your feet and lands in a standing ovation.
This production was reviewed during the Melbourne season.