The splendid cast of An American in Paris reprised a verse of “I Got Rhythm” during their curtain call on Sunday afternoon, and “who could ask for anything more” pretty much summed up the towering achievement of all involved. This irresistible reworking of the 1951 film has been shifted back a few years to post-Liberation Paris by playwright Craig Lucas, who put more meat on its narrative bones, and cast a few intriguing shadows over Gene Kelly and Vincente Minelli’s improbably sunny, Technicolor vision of Paris. 

Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild © Angela Sterling
Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild
© Angela Sterling

Director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon seamlessly weaves dance, dialogue, the peerless Gershwin songbook, the zingy designs of Bob Crowley, and video wizardry by 59 Productions. Fragments of iconic Parisian architecture float through the air, rowboats rise up from the Seine, and the grand pianos on stage twirl in pirouettes, as Wheeldon’s characters negotiate the uncertainties of a new era and a hard-won freedom.  

With An American in Paris, Gene Kelly not only revolutionised the movies by introducing the refinements of ballet and jazz, he also brought a bold new machismo to dance on film – paving the way for phenomena like the strutting, high-kicking, finger-snapping street gangs of West Side Story.

The ruthlessly perfectionist Kelly could not have handpicked a more worthy successor to fill his shoes in the lead role than New York City Ballet principal dancer and heartthrob Robert Fairchild. Fairchild is sensational as American lieutenant Jerry Mulligan, who “missed his train” out of Paris – “kinda sorta on purpose,” as his new friend, another American, the cynical composer Adam Hochberg observes. (Brandon Uranowitz is pitch-perfect in the Oscar Levant role.) Lucas swiftly establishes Mulligan as a sensitive outsider, who captures scenes of shell-shocked Paris in his sketchbook: tearful reunions, tense breadlines, the struggles of the maimed, the lynching of a collaborator, acts of kindness, of depravity, of desperation.

The handsome, clean-cut Fairchild boasts a warm singing voice and impressive acting chops, and tears up the stage, both in his solos and in several stunning pas de deux with Royal Ballet ballerina Leanne Cope in the role of Lise.

Cope is a striking dancer, with the right touch of the gamine in her big eyes, bobbed hair and innocent flirtatiousness. When she sings of “The Man I Love,” her sweet, plaintive voice is a wonderful surprise. But the role of the ingénue-with-a-secret is as shallow in 2015 as it was in 1951, and Cope doesn’t have the advantage that the 19-year-old Leslie Caron had, of numerous cinematic close-ups of her luminous face. She is at her most radiant in those moments when she is poised on pointe ­– notably in her audition scene at an illustrious Parisian ballet company. ­But, ultimately, her character is less interesting than those of the three men who vie for her affections: Jerry, Adam, and the French would-be song-and-dance-man Henri Baurel (the vibrant tenor Max Von Essen), whose wealthy family sheltered the Jewish Lise from the Nazis during occupation, and to whom Lise feels deeply obligated.

© Angela Sterling
© Angela Sterling
Henri’s engagement to Lise is announced at a fancy soirée to launch a new ballet – for which Adam is writing the score and Jerry is designing the sets – financed by an American heiress, Milo Davenport (the delicious Jill Paice), who tries to entice Jerry into her bed.

The engagement comes as a shock to both Jerry and Adam, who both thought they had a chance with Lise. In despair, Adam hammers a Chopin dirge out of the piano. When a party guest complains that this is a downer, Adam declares, with a tragicomic eloquence remindful of Woody Allen, “my themes are decay and the inevitability of death.”

Fragments of the Gershwin canon are expertly stitched to express the characters’ conflicting emotions, and the leads often sing the same song at cross-purposes. “Who Cares?” devolves cleverly into “(They’re playing songs of love) But not for me” sung by Milo, Henri, Jerry, Lise and Adam.

At one point mid-song, Adam confronts his pals: “What the hell are you guys doing in my song?”

Which very question might be posed of Wheeldon when it comes to the famous 17-minute ballet at the heart of An American in Paris. Kelly fashioned it into an homage to the painters Manet, Renoir, Utrillo, Van Gogh, Rousseau, Dufy, and Toulouse-Lautrec; against the backdrop of iconic locales including the Place de l’Etoile, the fountain at the Place de la Concorde, and a Montmartre café, the ballet culminated in a steamy duet for himself and Caron.

Wheeldon made a risky decision to abandon the mini-travelogue and turn this piece into an abstract ballet that celebrates the infiltration of American jazz into the classical idiom. Evocative of Mondrian, the set is an enormous, constantly shifting, brightly colored geometric puzzle; the ensemble are clad in bold, geometrically patterned leotards and strips of bright fabric suggestive of tutus that have melted and flattened in the sun. Wheeldon portrays the ecstatic union of Cope and Fairchild against this abstract playground, surrounded by the freewheeling forces, shapes and colors of jazz and modern art. It’s a winner.

© Matthew Murphy
© Matthew Murphy

Wheeldon knew better than to tamper with the happy ending, however. 

Henri does the honorable thing and releases Lise from their engagement. Jerry and Lise dance a pas de deux in the “real” world, no longer trapped in a Mondrian painting.

And Adam (who has the best lines in the show) reflects, philosophically: “I got the girl. I put her in the music. That’s where she belonged, for me.”