Dance critics are not used to such a wait. Walking past the Dominion daily, witnessing the lavish – and very blue – signs for An American in Paris, knowing that “preview” performances were taking place inside, was a frustrating experience; and – though Matthew Bourne is moving this way – we just aren’t used to 20+ performances before the “Opening Night”! One feels for the performers who have given their all for three weeks’ suddenly being judged on show number 21.   

Leanne Cope (Lise) © Angela Sterling
Leanne Cope (Lise)
© Angela Sterling
Was the wait worth it? As the American in Paris (Jerry Mulligan, a GI left behind after the city’s liberation from the Nazis), might have said: “You betcha”! A phenomenal Gershwin songbook, composited from several sources (including half of the ten songs from the eponymous 1951 film) and a rousing orchestra is certainly a strong start and the singing, notably from those originally trained just to dance, is first class.

Christopher Wheeldon is a choreographer out of the very top drawer, but here is evidence of a brilliant director, too. His predilection for pace and momentum is dominant (several minutes have been cut from the show that opened, in Paris, back in December 2014). The set, by Bob Crowley, dances almost as much as the humans; if not in panels pirouetting around the stage, then in large Parisian building facades, impressively swung into place for quick and seamless scene transitions. 

Sometimes it tries to do too much: the opening few minutes to Gershwin’s Concerto in F encompassed the liberation of Paris, the mob vilification of “Nazi collaborators” and provided a chance encounter to set in motion the romance between Mulligan and Lise Dassin (an aspiring ballet dancer, working as a store assistant). The relentless set movements were a trifle clunky. These concerns, however, melted away with the stupendous set transition that took us from seedy Parisian club to neon-infused, sparkling Radio City spectacular; literally in a couple of blinks of an eye. I can’t recall ever hearing such spontaneous applause for a set change. 

Robert Fairchild (Gerry) and Leanne Cope (Lise) © Johan Persson
Robert Fairchild (Gerry) and Leanne Cope (Lise)
© Johan Persson

Wheeldon has done much more than simply bring Vincente Minnelli’s film to the stage. There are new characters, songs taken from other shows and a whole new ballet company backdrop to the narrative. In 1951, I guess Hollywood wanted to forget the war; but, Wheeldon and his creative team roll back the action in every sense, giving a realistic feel for life in newly-liberated Paris. There is reference to ballet being kept solvent by Nazi money during the occupation; an accurate aside to the accusations of collaboration levelled at Serge Lifar, the real wartime director of the Paris Opera Ballet. 

The backstory of Henri Baurel (an aspiring singer from an affluent family) is fleshed out with Baurel’s parents added to the plot. Suspected of being quislings and still reticent to tell the truth, it turns out that they sheltered Lise (a Jewess) throughout occupation and Henri’s apparent diffidence disguises a Resistance hero.

I have a small quibble about the authenticity of costumes and hairstyles, which seem to cover a wide period. 30s wear is acceptable, since people would still have worn clothing from earlier eras; but, given the attention to the liberation of Paris (1944) at the outset, some costumes seemed to post-date Dior’s New Look revolution (1947) and others suggested the early 50s.

Leanne Cope (Lise) and Robert Fairchild (Jerry) © Tristram Kenton
Leanne Cope (Lise) and Robert Fairchild (Jerry)
© Tristram Kenton

The choreography is top class with a seering, swirling, passionate duet for Jerry and Lise, played by Robert Fairchild (a principal dancer on extended sabbatical from New York City Ballet) and Leanne Cope (a former First Artist of The Royal Ballet). The Gene Kelly film ends with a memorable 17-minute fantasy ballet; and, not to be outdone, Wheeldon has created a vivid, tightly-knit ensemble piece to the same music (Gershwin’s An American in Paris). It is worth the price of a ticket, alone: absolutely splendid, danced with verve, energy and tight control by a great group of dancers; Cope is partnered by former BRB/ENB soloist, Max Westwell, and many other faces are recognisable from classical ballet backgrounds. 

Cope is sensational. She sings delightfully (The Man I Love was a first act highlight) and I doubt she will return to ballet. A real star has been born in this show and long may she relish and develop this well-deserved celebrity. Fairchild essays just the right attitude as the aspiring artist caught between his love for Lise and the desire for his art to be recognised. Haydn Oakley was especially strong in the ambiguous (hero/coward, gay/straight) role of Henri; Zoë Rainey, a siren seductress as the rich American art patron, Milo Davenport; and David Seadon-Young gave a moving, sad sack account of the wounded American pianist who narrates the work.  Topping all this was an authoritative – and funny – performance by Jane Asher as Henri’s meddling mother. 

© Tristram Kenton
© Tristram Kenton

I never get to say this in the here-today, gone-tomorrow world of dance shows (Bourne being the exception that proves the rule) but, there’s no need to hurry for a ticket. This show is settling-in for a long run.

****1