Monday, April 20, 2015

An American in Paris, Sans Alan Jay Lerner

Robert Fairchild, Brandon Uranowitz and Max Von Essen in An American in Paris (All photos by Angela Sterling)

Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 movie musical An American in Paris is simultaneously breezy and lush. With its smart, sometimes cheeky Alan Jay Lerner script, its Gershwin score and the ebullient choreography by its star, Gene Kelly, it’s one of the highlights of the golden age of M-G-M musicals. Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, an American G.I. who sticks around Paris after the war to paint. He finds a patron, a wealthy émigré American socialite, Milo (Nina Foch), who wants to add him to her roster of bohemian lovers, but he falls in love with a shopgirl named Lise (Leslie Caron) whom he spots at a café. He courts her and wins her love, but just as he’s hampered by his attachment to Milo (he doesn’t reciprocate her sexual interest in him: these are still the days of the Hays Code), Lise also has other claims. She’s engaged to the affable music hall performer Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary), whom she doesn’t love but to whom she feels beholden, since he took care of her during the war when her parents, Resistance fighters, were captured by the Nazis. (Here Lerner reworks a plot strand from Casablanca.) To complicate matters further, Henri and Jerry have just become friends, through their mutual pal Adam (Oscar Levant), a struggling composer.

The title isn’t just an allusion to the plot and the identity of the hero; it also encapsulates the movie’s Hollywood romantic-fantasy version of Paris, reconstructed on soundstages and as stylized as, say, Minnelli’s version of Manhattan in The Clock and The Band Wagon. The old woman who sells flowers on the Left Bank and with whom Jerry waltzes, the café owner and his wife who greet Henri joyously when he drops by after a long absence, the spooning couples in the streets and the windows of the flats, even the children who press Jerry for bubble gum and with whom he performs the infectious “I Got Rhythm” number – all of these are an American’s idea of Parisians. And Guétary, with his slightly nasal chanteur’s style and his tossed-off boulevard elegance, is as much an American’s dream of a Frenchman as Maurice Chevalier was in the Ernst Lubitsch musicals of the late twenties and early thirties. When Guétary performs “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” (which had been introduced on Broadway by a raft of vocalists with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra in the 1922 edition of George White’s Scandals), each elongated step pulsates with neon as he scales it, while showgirls with feathered headdresses tower above him; the effect is of some version of the Folies Bergère invented by the imagination of Americans based on the Ziegfeld Follies and a couple of decades of elaborate Hollywood movie musicals. When Jerry and Lise execute a pas de deux to “Love Is Here to Stay” (one of the last songs George Gershwin wrote, first performed in the movie The Goldwyn Follies by Kenny Baker) on the banks of the Seine, the rite of courtship between a boisterous, athletic American dancer and a pert French gamine could only have been dreamed up by an American.

An American in Paris makes only one mistake, but it’s a big one: most of the last twenty minutes is given over to a ballet to Gershwin’s “American in Paris Suite” that attempts to animate the work of half a dozen famous French painters. This is a folly that must be blamed equally on the pretentiousness of Minnelli (who was an art collector) and Kelly (who also got carried away in the 1956 anthology picture Invitation to the Dance). The ballet brings the charming movie to a grinding halt. Some of Kelly’s choreography is witty, and you can’t fault his dancing in it, but the number is overdesigned and in every way overextended. And who goes to see a Gene Kelly musical to watch him imagine his way into a bunch of celebrated French canvases? For the sake of the plot we’re willing to accept the conceit that Kelly’s Jerry Mulligan is a painter mopping up the atmosphere of post-war Paris, but what we love about Kelly is the mix of working-class earthiness and the Terpsichorean gifts that lift him up into the air. Kelly isn’t Fred Astaire, whose style is aristocratic. When Astaire played ordinary joes like the sailor in Follow the Fleet, everything from his ineffable way of reading a line to the unstressed purity of his singing to the way he walked across a room as if his feet never touched the ground made a sublime joke of the supposed ordinariness. Kelly, by contrast, is the dancer as Olympic champion.

Veanne Cox and Scott Willis in An American in Paris.

The trouble with the new Broadway reimagining of An American in Paris is that, in every way except the narrative, it’s lost the “American.” Craig Lucas’s misconceived book seems to have been inspired not by Lerner and the light-hearted Gershwin songs but by that heavy-handed title ballet. There’s humor – most of it supplied by Veanne Cox as one-half of the couple managing a Parisian ballet company, whose cautious upper-crust air stifles any spark of enjoyment – but the material has been converted from buoyant musical comedy to musical melodrama. Adam Cook, the goofball composer played by Oscar Levant (who, in a fantasy interlude, gets to play all the musicians, the conductor and even the most enthusiastic members of the audience for a performance of the “Concerto in F”), is now Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz), a New York Jew who, like Jerry (Robert Fairchild, of the New York City Ballet), remained in Paris after the war. But not just because he has artistic aspirations; he lost his leg in battle and couldn’t stand to face his family. The wooden limb he hauls around the stage becomes a dead weight; so is his mournful, hopeless love for Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope, of England’s Royal Ballet), the dancer whose audition for the ballet company he facilitates and for whom he writes the ballet (“An American in Paris,” of course) he knows will make her a star. Instead of a boulevardier exuding continental savoir-faire, Henri Baurel is now a nervous would-be singer and dancer who is covertly defying the expectations of his father (Scott Willis) and mother (Cox) that he inherit his dad’s cloth business.

The rest of the story is pretty much the same as the one Lerner devised, including the patron, still called Milo (and played by Jill Paice), who falls for Jerry. Her money is bankrolling the ballet season, and she gets him hired onto Adam’s ballet (which, as designed by Bob Crowley, is part Cézanne, part Kandinsky). In the movie, the irony of the “’S Wonderful” number, a duet for Kelly and Guétary, is that neither of them knows that they’re both paying tribute to the same woman; in the stage musical, Adam is always dreaming of Lise but he figures out that he’s not in the contest. He also uncovers Henri’s heroic wartime past, which, for unconvincing reasons, his family has hidden.

The show has been directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, the Royal Ballet’s artistic Associate, and its chief virtue lies in what he’s brought to the project. The dancing is superb, but that’s not all: Wheeldon has staged the musical so that all the musical numbers, not just the danced ones, are part of an overarching choreographic conception. The physical juxtaposition of the competing, overlapping romantic entanglements operates dramatically in one number in the first act (“’S Wonderful,” an inheritance from the movie) and several in the second (“Who Cares?,” “For You, for Me, for Everymore,” “But Not for Me,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”) – and when these songs underscore the inevitable disappointment of three of the five principals, the tone shifts from melodrama to musical drama. Wheeldon has a gift for mood that transcends the forced downbeat in Lucas’s script.

Jill Paice as Milo Davenport & Leanne Cope as Lise Dassin in An American in Paris.

In Adam’s scenes, that downbeat borders on masochism, for reasons that have nothing to do with Uranowitz. He’s an effective actor, and so is Jill Paice. The rewrite of Lerner’s screenplay gives Milo’s emotional predicament more focus, and Paice tries out a kind of Cate Blanchett-like brittleness that grows more affecting as the play goes on, while the fact that the stage version has broadened Milo into a musical role showcases her in other ways. On the other hand, though Max von Essen is a perfectly adequate Henri, the rewriting of his role into a puzzlingly wishy-washy would-be Lothario does him no favors. His mother urges him to sweep Lise off her feet, but he’s so reluctant to convey his feelings to her that the movie suggests that he might be gay, an idea it doesn’t follow up on.

Robert Fairchild’s Jerry is a different sort of problem. As a dancer he’s brilliant – it seems clear that he’s capable of pulling off anything Wheeldon or any other choreographer could throw at him. But as an actor he doesn’t have much of a personality. I appreciate the daunting challenge of taking on a role written for Gene Kelly, but when the great Astaire-Rogers Swing Time was turned into a Broadway musical, Never Gonna Dance, the performer who had to slip into Astaire’s shoes, Noah Racey, had enough style and humor of his own so that you didn’t spend the entire evening thinking of Astaire. And I remember liking Don Correia, who played the Kelly role in the 1985 Broadway transcription of Singin’ in the Rain. Fairchild is so good in the dance numbers and fades so quickly in the book scenes that the effect is almost schizoid. He and Leanne Cope partner beautifully in the “Liza” number – “Liza” is Jerry’s name for Lise – and in the pas de deux in the “American in Paris” ballet.

Crowley’s costumes are lovely, especially the ones he’s built for Paice. The set consists mostly of a pair of cardboard cut-outs that interact against the cyclorama with projections and Natasha Katz’s lighting to suggest both the Paris skyline and fantasy settings for the dances. Sometimes it looks simply splendid; at other times (as when the background for a number is a projection of a gigantic flower) it’s reminiscent of some of the more unfortunate M-G-M musicals of the forties and fifties, like Yolanda and the Thief and Royal Wedding. The audience at the preview performance I saw embraced the show enthusiastically; many of them must have desired fervently that it match up to their memories of the movie, and others that it satisfy their dream of an old-style big Broadway musical. And for all that Wheeldon achieves in the staging, it doesn’t quite.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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