An American in Paris five-star review – Minnelli musical becomes theatrical gold
Dominion, London Christopher Wheeldon’s superb show is a riot of colour and movement, with irresistible dance routines and a wealth of Gerhswin classics
Tuesday 21 March 2017 19.30 EDT
A magical transformation has taken place. Aside from its sensational climactic ballet, the 1951 Hollywood movie on which this show is based offers a ludicrously stagey vision of Paris filled with cheery gendarmes and chirping kids. But Christopher Wheeldon, as director and choreographer, and Bob Crowley, whose sets and costumes have a touch of genius, have created a show that not only offers an eclectic range of Gershwin songs but is also a riot of colour and movement.
From the start, as swastika-adorned banners turn into the tricolour, we are reminded that we are in the newly liberated Paris of 1945; it is still, however, a city of breadlines and vengeful attacks on collaborators. But Craig Lucas’s book does everything to give substance to the movie’s thin story. We still see an ex-GI and would-be artist, Jerry Mulligan, falling in love with Parisian Lise. But there are now two rivals for Lise’s affections, in the shape of an aspiring nightclub singer, Henri, and a war maimed composer, Adam. The pivotal role of Milo, a rich American woman in love with Jerry, has also been enhanced, so that she now finds herself financing a new ballet in which Lise will star.
The story has been radically improved, but it is the look of the show that stuns one. Crowley’s designs not only seem part of the choreography but also offer a painterly kaleidoscope. The glimmer of light on water reminds one of Monet, there is more than a touch of Renoir’s rainbow palette in a masquerade ball and the bustling boulevards, while the geometric shapes and vibrant colours in the final ballet evoke Picasso and the paper collages of late Matisse. If you were to freeze the action at any point, you would be left with a powerful image.
Wheeldon’s choreography, however, ensures the show is never still. He lets dance emerge out of daily life as in an umbrella-twirling number in the midst of Galeries Lafayette. And in The Eclipse of Uranus dance – a clever number that takes place at a posh soiree for culture vultures –he parodies the artiness of 40s classical ballet to show its adherents collectively jiving to an unfamiliar Gershwin number, Fidgety Feet.
The moment of ecstasy that all musicals need comes when Henri, who is here a stumbling amateur rather than a smooth professional, turns I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise into a soaring Mittyesque fantasy in an art deco Radio City Music Hall filled with ostrich-plumed chorus girls.
Robert Fairchild, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, is excellent as Jerry because, as well as being able to act and sing, he has the capacity to glide effortlessly into a number. The Royal Ballet’s Leanne Cope is a beguiling Lise, at her best in the big dance routines. The support, meanwhile, is impeccable. Haydn Oakley, a dead ringer for Julian Barnes, lends Henri an unexpected complexity; Zoe Rainey is highly stylish as Milo; and David Seadon-Young is suitably wry as the aggrieved composer. There is even the bonus of Jane Asher as Henri’s mother hinting that inside a strait-laced, high-bourgeois figure lurks a toe-tapping swinger. With Rob Fisher supervising a score that includes a wealth of Gershwin classics, you feel as if the tarnished silver of the Vincente Minnelli movie has been turned into theatrical gold.
At the Dominion, London, until 30 September. Box office: 0844-847 1775.