It’s been a few months now since An American in Paris hit the London stage, a much-awaited Big Ticket with a strong reputation for great dance and musical magic. It will probably come as no surprise to you, gentle reader, to discover that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have seen the film (we’re useless cinemagoers) so I came to the show without any preconceptions or knowledge of what to expect.
The original movie is of course a product of the Hollywood machine, with a score by those legends George and Ira Gershwin. I knew many of the songs, but didn’t know they came from this show. I Got Rhythm, ‘S Wonderful, I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise, The Man I Love, They Can’t Take That Away from Me… all show classics. To do the film justice, I’m guessing they concentrated on high production values, and as a result the show looks stunning. The sets are inventive, with an amazing use of projection to create different locations at the flick of a switch. The orchestra is fantastic, making those famous songs sound truly superb. I particularly loved the whole performance of “I Got Rhythm”; how it starts off as a languid, rather funereal anthem and so unlike the party piece we all know and love, but then gets a kick up the rear with a funky arrangement. The orchestra play it again as the entr’acte music and it’s absolutely brilliant.
There’s also a great cast. When I checked my programme – more of which later – I was delighted to see some favourite names in there. Jerry is played by Ashley Day, who was a sensational Curly in the touring production of Oklahoma! a couple of years ago. Zoe Rainey, who was a stylish and charming Hope in Sheffield’s Anything Goes, plays Milo Davenport with elegant enthusiasm. Ashley Andrews, superb in both Drunk and Mack and Mabel, shines as the difficult choreographer Mr Z, and there’s even the evergreen Jane Asher providing a frosty warmth to the role of Madame Baurel.
However, something’s just not right. It was Mrs C who pointed out that for some reason it just does not add up to the sum of its parts. Once you’ve got over the amusing set up of having three friends all chasing the same girl and none of them realise it, the story is paper thin, and doesn’t really sustain two hours forty minutes. The famous American in Paris ballet sequence, which acts as the climax to the show, whilst musically strong and immaculately performed, left me just a little bit bored. Leanne Cope, who plays Lise, is a remarkable performer for her combination of ballet (a First Artist at the Royal Ballet) and superb voice, but for me she maintains that beautiful ballerina countenance at the expense of emotional reaction to all that happens around her. I never got that spark of attraction between her and any of her three suitors, so their combined plight was never as moving as I’m sure it ought to be. It was like observing an immaculately beautiful museum piece, finely constructed by a master craftsman, but almost totally devoid of passion. There’s a slight disconnect in the dance too, with Miss Cope’s feet firmly in the ballet camp and Mr Day’s firmly in musical theatre, so that when they dance together something doesn’t quite gel. The ensemble and swings do an amazing job at filling the stage with their colourful energy but, again, I felt that some of Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography lacked a little imagination. So it all never really soared.
I was also slightly disappointed at the way some of the big numbers came across. ‘S Wonderful felt like a very slight kind of song somehow, like a wispy feather struggling to stand still in a breeze. I’ll Build a Stairway to Heaven was given a very grand Hollywood setting (think the finale to A Chorus Line but even more so) but it seemed strangely inappropriate; for me, the look and the sound clashed. I can’t explain it more; I simply remember watching the performance and thinking, no, this isn’t for me. And I like musicals!
There’s a running joke in the show that Jerry’s designs for the American in Paris big ballet sequence are not up to Mr Z’s demanding standards, and it’s only when Milo Davenport threatens to remove the funding for the show that Mr Z relents. The adaptation of Jerry’s designs to the actual staging of the number and the costumes of the dancers is incredibly well done – technically fantastic. However, I think I have to agree with Mr Z. When it actually came to the big number, I thought the abstract designs were rather cheap looking, and didn’t enhance the narrative of the dance.
You’d think from this that I didn’t enjoy the show. Not true – I certainly did. There was so much to appreciate musically and from the performances, and from the entertaining script (I enjoyed the occasional tongue-in-cheek references to George Gerswhin!) It looked sumptuous, and the orchestra were fantastic. It’s just that we didn’t connect with it. Still, a very appreciative house did; and I see that it has recently extended its booking to April 2018, so it’s obviously doing something right. I’m very glad to have seen it; I wouldn’t want to see it again.
P. S. The programme is a big colour brochure full of great photos (but then so is their website). £8. “Do you have smaller ordinary programmes, or is this the only one”, I asked the slightly surprised programme-seller. “No, this is it”, she replied. I duly paid out my £8, and wondered how I was going to break the news to Mrs C. It was so big I could hardly stuff it into my man-bag. I’m not going to use the words “rip off”, because it’s probably not bad value for what it offers. It’s just that it almost offers too much! For £8 I could buy a week’s worth of undies at Primark.
Production photographs by Johan Persson and Helen Maybanks