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Associate Musical Director/Conductor

An American in Paris, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris: ‘Bold, satisfying and witty’

By Sarah Crompton | The Telegraph | December 11, 2014

An American in Paris opens with a young American GI walking through the streets of a shattered postwar city, sketching what he sees. As screens of black and grey buildings. drawn in chalk lines, create the scene around him, he encounters bread queues, collaborators, soldiers returning from war and a beautiful, kind girl called Lise whom he pursues with increasing fervour.

It is a sequence to take the breath away – and it does what dance does so brilliantly, painting a picture without any words. At its close, a pale sun comes out over Paris and you understand exactly where we are.

For this is emphatically not a stage version of the much-loved 1951 film but a thorough-going rethinking. The original was put together by writer Alan Jay Lerner, choreographer and star Gene Kelly and director Vincente Minnelli from a selection of George Gershwin classics 14 years after the composer’s death. Though colourful, its plot was as thin as mille-feuille.

Directing his first musical, the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, with writer Craig Lucas, has added some extra sustenance in the shape of a back story that explains the relationships of its protagonists and additional songs that fit seamlessly into a reworked plot.

The result is bold, satisfying and witty, greatly helped by the fluency of Bob Crowley’s virtuosic designs (and wonderful projections from 59 Productions) which bowl around Paris, creating everything from boats on the Seine to the interior of the Galeries Lafayette. In routines such as I’ve Got Rhythm (which starts as a funeral dirge and becomes a life-enhancing whirl of movement) and I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise (as grand and splashy as a Busby Berkeley extravaganza), Wheeldon writes a love letter to the great American musical itself.

But he is true to his roots as well. For all the showbiz pizzazz he brings to the dance numbers, they have a balletic grace and emotion that is entirely his. His decision to turn the famous 17- minute ballet into an abstract piece pays off; in its jazzy rapture, the duet of acknowledged love for Jerry and Lise is heartfelt and moving.

His other brave choice – to cast Leanne Cope of the Royal Ballet and Robert Fairchild of New York City Ballet as his leads – is also vindicated. They dance up a dream (obviously) but she has a pretty singing voice and heaps of charm, while he is a revelation, commanding the stage with charisma and panache worthy of Kelly himself. In an excellent company, Jill Paice and Veanne Cox in particular lend delicious comic support.

There are a few small structural problems that hold up the first act but don’t diminish the night’s sense of triumph. By the time this show lands on Broadway in April, it should be ready to run and run.