Ah, April in Paris! Paree at the Pierre! This was in the nippy spring air April 12 as a stage version of MGM's "An American in Paris" laid siege to the Palace and then hordes of contented first-nighters hopped the R train to the Hotel Pierre for the after-party.
Gershwin Musical An American in Paris Opens on Broadway; Red Carpet Arrivals, Curtain Call and Party
Neither stage version is what you remember from the movie. Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote those Oscar-winning screenplays and the 1973 Gigi musical, is left at the starting gate so the material could be brought up to speed for modern audiences. There's less to hold on to with An American in Paris, a gossamer boy-gets-girl-between-the-Gershwin-evergreens confection, so adapter Craig Lucas has blithely plucked the first names of the principals and given them new plot assignments.
Jerry, an American soldier who lingered in Paris after World War II to paint (Gene Kelly then/Robert Fairchild now), is the prisoner of a predator patron of the arts, Milo (Nina Foch/Jill Paice). His late-blooming true love, Lise (Leslie Caron/Leanne Cope), is engaged to a fellow Frenchman, Henri (Georges Guetary/Max von Essen). There is a fifth wheel, Adam (Oscar Levant/Brandon Uranowitz), originally created for comic relief, who is now written — very lightly — into the central triangle.
Lucas eschews the movie's strictly-tourist approach to Paris by injecting some post-war after-effects like Adam's limp and some pop-psychology like Henri's unsettled sexuality issues. Veanne Cox, as Henri's mom, mines humor out of the character's lack of humor, and Paice clearly revels at her switch from sweetness and light.
All seemed to have survived the Paris lift-off where pastries were plentiful — Cox, acutely so: "I'm wearing the same dress I did at the Company opening 20 years ago."
"The movie was a classic for its time," allowed Lucas, "but, if we decided that we were going to bring it to Broadway, we wanted it to be for today. We wanted to take Gene Kelly's brilliant idea of one ballet at the end of the show and actually start the show with a ballet and then work dance and ballet all the way through the play."
Given the heavy dance card, a hyphenate was needed, and Christopher Wheeldon gamely sallied forth with a fresh bag of tricks to direct and choreograph.
"I'm used to making dances and not used to directing actors," he said, "but this was a wonderfully challenging experience for me, and I'm very proud of the results."
He should be. His beginner's luck produced easy, charming, natural performances from his two leads — NYC Ballet's Fairchild and the Royal Ballet's Cope — who, aside from what they put into their dancing, never really acted before on a stage.
"As a dancer," said Fairchild, "I feel my strongest suit is telling stories through movement, and it was fun to learn how to do that through my voice and through how we all talk. My acting teachers, Joan Rosenfels and Kate Wilson, really saw my potential, and we molded it together. It was incredible work to get to that level."
"I can't say it's been easy," Cope added. "Obviously, we both come from a ballet background. To me, ballet has always been trying to tell a story where you don't have words. You say it through your body. I guess we both had that in us, but then to actually be asked to speak words — yeah, it's been hard. We put a lot of hours in."
The movie's calling-card was, and still is, its climactic "American in Paris" ballet sequence — at 18 minutes, the longest ever committed to film at the time — where Kelly and Caron dance, prance and parade through the French impressionism of Manet, Utrillo, Rousseau, van Gogh (more on him later from Minnelli), Dufy and Toulouse-Lautrec. The stage facsimile dispenses all this in just under 14 minutes against a background of artists of another era (even Picasso, who lived in Paris).
Apart from the two leads, the show's most conspicuous and creative partnering is that of Wheeldon with the great Bob Crowley, who designed the costumes and sets.
"Bob and I have a long relationship," Wheeldon said. "I first worked with him when I was 23 years old. He designed two major full-length ballets for me. He's a magician.
"We were looking to find a way for the 'American in Paris' ballet to feel like a direct extension of our story, so any kind of recreating what was done on screen was not interesting to us. We wanted it to be the crashing-together of the different art forms of our leading characters, so we looked at artists who were influential back then."
Crowley was pleased with the results: "The scenery, hopefully, dances like the show."