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“An American in Paris” makes dance its essential language

NEW YORK…..With his production of  “An American in Paris,” Christopher Wheeldon can be added to that impressive list of choreographers (Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Susan Stroman, Kathlen Marshall and Jerry Mitchell, among others) who moved on to direct some of the most ambitious Broadway musicals.

Inspired by the beloved 1951 film that starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron and took its musical cue from George and Ira Gershwin, Wheeldon has created what might best be described as a story ballet on steroids. Everything in this new musical moves — from the actors (two of whom just happen to be world class dancers), to the fabulously “choreographed” projection-enhanced sets and costumes created by that magician of a designer, Bob Crowley. And even when the dialogue falls a bit flat (the show’s book is by Craig Lucas), the story is in such perpetual motion that words seem almost beside the point. Dance is the only language really needed here.

‘AN AMERICAN IN PARIS’

RECOMMENDED

When: Open run

Where: Palace Theatre,

Broadway & 47th St., New York

Tickets: $30.75 – $156.75

Info: (877) 250-2929;

http://www.AnAmericanInParisBroadway.com

Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission

Of course there is a story to be told.

The show, beautifully framed by the proscenium of the fabled Palace Theatre, starts simply enough. Composer Adam Hochberg (deftly played by Brandon Uranowitz), stands beside a grand piano and launches into a memoir of the time he spent in Paris in the wake of World War II. A wounded Jewish-American soldier (a sort of George Gershwin clone, had Gershwin lived beyond 1937) , he recounts the heady days that followed the liberation of that city from the Nazis. He also wistfully recounts his futile pursuit of an elusive French girl, Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope), a gifted ballerina who not only ignited his heart, but fully captured the attention of another American soldier, aspiring artist Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild).

Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope star in the new Broadway musical, “An American in Paris.” (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

 

The catch in all this was that Lise felt a sense of duty to marry a young Frenchman, Henri Baurel (Max von Essen) — the heir to a textile business, whose family protected her during the war. Baurel, who may or may not be gay, and wants only to be a cabaret performer, is fond of Lise, but certainly not the man who will make her happy. In addition, Jerry was being quite relentlessly pursued by Milo Davenport (Jill Paice), a wealthy woman of a certain age and elegance (think beautiful version of Peggy Guggenheim) who wanted to support and promote him, and, just as crucially, wanted to make him her lover.

Complementing the complicated love story is the notion that in those post-war years, artists became a driving force in the revival of France — a country accused of capitulating to the Nazis, even if many of its citizens joined the resistance and fought the good fight.

So how does Wheeldon make all this happen? First, he has tapped the talents of two remarkable dancers who are making their Broadway debuts.

Fairchild, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet since 2009, is handsome in the most relaxed and engaging way. He moves like a dream, and has acting and singing chops that could easily compete with any Broadway veteran. Watch him leap from counter to counter in the perfume shop where Lise works to the sound of “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck,” or playfully enchant Lise by Americanizing her name in “Liza,” as they sit beside the Seine (backed by Crowley’s cleverly skewed perspective view). Or delight in the way he joins forces with Uranowitz and von Essen in “‘S Wonderful,” or leads the ensemble in “Fidgety Feet” (a relatively unknown Gershwin frolic). He is a big talent and headed for a Tony nomination to be sure.

Cope, who has danced with Britain’s Royal Ballet since 2003, is the classic gamine — a petite beauty with a dark, silky bob (even her hair seems to dance) framing an expressive face. A lovely actress, who infuses her character with a real sense of spine and intelligence, she is a perfect match for Fairchild (their chemistry is palpable), and is as at ease with ballroom moves as with classical dance. She also can sing, as she demonstrates in her charming take on “The Man I Love.”

Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope in “An American in Paris.” (Photo: Angela Sterling)

The Gershwins’ music (and who could ask for anything more?) has been ideally adapted and arranged by Rob Fisher, with orchestrations by Christopher Austin and musical direction by‎ Brad Haak. It is used in two ways, with most of the songs inserted to capture the emotion of a scene, while the larger orchestral works drive the big production numbers — from the paired “Second Rhapsody” and “Cuban Overture” that concludes the first act in grand style, to “An American in Paris” itself. That work serves as the score for a “new ballet” composed by Hochberg, designed by Mulligan and danced by Lise. And Wheeldon and Crowley have cleverly conceived it to suggest Cubist Art and the groundbreaking work of the Ballets Russes.

Ultimately, the great gift of this show is that it is bound to introduce audiences who might never think of going to the ballet to an art form that is sure to enthrall them. And even if they do not head out to buy tickets to the ballet, they can revel in its seductive Broadway incarnation.

One final note: Wheeldon will be creating the Joffrey Ballet’s brand new version of “The Nutcracker,” set to debut in December, 2016.