Swoon-worthy dance and design grace the mighty State Theatre as international hit musical An American in Paris jetés into town.
Deliberately marooned in Paris at the end of WWII, ex-serviceman Jerry Mulligan juggles art, romance and music as he makes new friends, attracts the attention of a wealthy benefactress and falls helplessly in love with a mysterious young dancer.
Premiering in Paris in 2014 shortly before its 2015 Broadway opening, An American in Paris follows My One and Only, Crazy for You and Nice Work If You Can Get It in mining the timeless treasures of the Gershwin brothers canon, in this case to expand the selection of Gershwin songs used in the classic 1951 movie upon which the musical is based.
Adapted and arranged by ’s marvellous maestro Rob Fisher, the 17 musical numbers are an absolute delight, especially when heard alongside the recent proliferation of rock musicals in Melbourne. Exacting music director Vanessa Scammell leads a generous contingent of 27 musicians from Orchestra Victoria in a richly hued performance of the gorgeous melodies and fascinating rhythms.
Performing a double duty that is increasingly rarely seen, Christopher Wheeldon harks back to the Golden Age, seamlessly integrating dance and action the way that only a director/choreographer can. Wheeldon uses dance to illuminate character and propel plot and, occasionally, to stop the show, as with the act two extravaganza “I’ll Build A Stairway to Paradise.”
Wheeldon crafts affecting vignettes, creates vividly detailed ensemble tableaux and even sends up his own form with the exaggerated ballet recital that opens act two. As with the movie, the musical climaxes in an incredible “An American in Paris” ballet, which holds the audience spellbound for the full 14 minutes.
Speaking of double duty, renowned designer Bob Crowley contributes sets and costumes, painting an alluringly romantic vision of post-war Paris. Backdrops, projections and set pieces dance into view with the same elegant grace as the ensemble, achieving an ever more visually appealing array of stage pictures. This touring production makes additional use of projections, designed by 59 Productions, with several backdrop set pieces replaced by projected images. The overall effect remains just as effective as that seen in New York and London.
In a unique arrangement, original Broadway and West End stars Robbie Fairchild and Leanne Cope have travelled to Australia to recreate their lead roles. With the dance requirements in particular stretching the usual bounds of triple threat talent, the challenging roles are difficult ones to fill successfully. From the ranks of co-producers The Australian Ballet, Cameron Holmes and Dimity Azoury have been cast as alternates, performing the lead roles in two of each week’s eight performances.
Fairchild is absolute dynamite as Jerry, dancing with a level of skill and flair rarely seen in musical theatre; the fact that he sings and acts the role just as well completes the miracle. Jerry does not dance until the fourth number, and when Fairchild takes full flight in “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck,” the audience is practically blown backward in their seats. Sparks fly when Fairchild dances with Cope, but his solo in the title ballet is a true highlight. This is a tremendous performance that really must be seen.
Cope is utterly charming as dear Lise, effortlessly conveying the appeal of an innocent young woman who has amassed three suitors (who all happen to be best friends). Cope has a sweet , pure singing voice, heard at its best in act one ballad “The Man I Love.” As with Fairchild, the quality of Cope’s performance stems from her innate ability to continue to act while dancing. In the hands of both of these artists, no step is just a step; everything occurs for a well-considered reason.
Fairchild and Cope are ably supported by a trio of local performers giving breakout performances.
As embattled composer Adam, Jonathan Hickey contributes dreamy vocals that fit the Gershwin style to a tee. “But Not for Me” is a wonderful highlight of act two. Hickey also proves a subtle comedian, scoring laughs whilst also gaining the audience’s sympathy in his adorable underdog role.
Sam Ward makes for a terrific Henri, portraying a young man questioning his sexuality without so much as a trace of stereotypical behaviour. Possessing a warm, rich singing voice, Ward capably proves himself a leading man in the making.
Although heiress Milo Davenport is the fly in the (romantic) ointment, Ashleigh Rubenach brings an easy likability to the role. Looking a million dollars in Crowley’s designer gowns, Rubenach’s vocal performance is first rate, with “Shall We Dance?” being a particular highlight.
Theatrical treasure Anne Wood proves yet again that there are no small roles, bringing a delectable brittleness to Madame Baurel then allowing her to melt when the time is right. In what is practically a cameo role as Monsieur Baurel, David Whitney lands a crowd-pleasing moment in act two as a before-his-time father warm-heartedly accepts and embraces his nervous son’s life choices.
The 16 artists of the ensemble are a joy to behold, dancing Wheeldon’s deliciously creative choreography with balletic style, grace and focus. Special mention to Mitchell Mahony in the characterful role of dance impresario Mr Z and Annie Stanford as wearyingly droll ballet mistress Olga. The Australian Ballet Soloist Jake Mangakahia stands out in the ensemble, particularly when partnering Cope in the climactic title ballet.
While the title of the musical may not be as well known as another little show opening in Melbourne this week, the season of An American in Paris should nonetheless be seen for the major artistic event that it is. For lovers of good old fashioned musical theatre fare, the ravishing spectacle of An American in Paris will be sure to dazzle and delight.
To read the casting schedule for the two lead roles, click here.
An American in Paris plays at Theatre Royal, Sydney 29 April – 12 June 2022.
An American in Paris plays at Crown Theatre, Perth 9 – 27 July 2022.
An American in Paris plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide 24 January – 12 February 2023.
For tickets in each location, click here.
Photos: Darren Thomas