The poster and publicity for this present it as ‘a new musical’, but that might surprise the Gershwins, who wrote this parade of songs (some from the 1951 film, some from other sources) which move along the story of Jerry Mulligan – here played by alternate Ashley Day in his debut in the role – and Lise Dassin, played by Leanne Cope, who also did the role on Broadway.
He’s a soldier who stays in Paris after the Nazi occupation has been routed to become an artist, as idealistic Americans often do. He keeps seeing pretty Lise and falls hard for her, knowing it cannot just be coincidence. Soon they start meeting by the Seine, but she doesn’t want to discuss her past or personal circumstances.
Abrasive Adam Hochberg (David Seadon-Young) is the piano player and the commentator on the action, and it was fun to see him deal with a technical malfunction in the first scene which stopped the show at the big reveal of the video projection: we were soon off again, though, into the busy streets where Nazi sympathisers were still about and idealistic Frenchmen like Henri Baurel saw lucrative futures for them across the Channel.
Jerry finds a patroness in the ‘international dilettante’ Milo Davenport (Zoë Rainey), a Ginger Rogers-like cougar who likes a lot more than his paintings, while on the periphery Henri’s parents M and Mme Baurel (Julian Forsyth and Jane Asher) worry about their son’s lack of interest in settling down to marriage, and slowly find their shared love of jazz music coming to the fore again.
The leads are required to mix styles from both grand ballet and musical theatre (Day is primarily from the latter, but his moves look stellar enough to me, and he has a glorious toothy smile which makes you warm to the character; Cope is a ballerina but displays a fine singing voice in her solo ‘The Man I Love’), and the show benefits from a talented company of dancers, swings and chorus.
The sets need to be mentioned: Bob Crowley (formerly with the National and the RSC) is scene and costume designer, and 59 Productions Ltd are responsible for the many projections which conjure up time and place, as well as a feeling of being in a city which celebrates the creative arts. And the music by George Gershwin with lyrics by brother Ira both feel timeless and a world away, with the friend scene-setting of ‘I Got Rhythm’ rubbing shoulders with Jerry’s solo ‘I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck’ and the four-part ‘For You, For Me, For Everymore’.
A couple of things I would change: ‘Stairway to Paradise’ cries out to be a huge production number with showgirls from the start, and Adam’s part is really reduced (OK, he’s not Oscar Levant who was essentially playing himself in the film, but still) so we lose some of the humour and asides the character could make. There’s also something of a running joke of Henri being possibly gay which felt forced.
Christopher Wheeldon directs and choreographs in the old style, and he does brilliantly, using his cast and his orchestrations (by Christopher Austin and Bill Elliott, conducted by John Rigby). This is just a good old-fashioned musical, with great tunes, more than competently performed.
And yes there is a long ballet to the ‘An American in Paris’ suite, full of eye-popping colours and flashy moves, punctuated by some tender pas de deux between Day and Cope. Elsewhere, there are mirrors and windows, and misunderstandings, and even a Jew in hiding subplot, but the story isn’t really why we’re here. Superlative.