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American in Paris: '​S Wonderful

12/04/2014 04:31 EST | Updated 02/03/2015 05:59 EST

A planeload of talented Americans have landed in Paris to bless the City of Light with the magic of George Gershwin. It's all happening at Théâtre du Châtelet, which adds to its resumé of impressive musical theatre productions the privilege of presenting American in Paris' out-of-town tryout before it opens at Broadway's Palace Theatre in March. But why head back across the pond? The Paris audience -- laughing more heartily than I have ever heard, and to English jokes, no less! -- is well on its way to embracing American musical theatre, and indeed the entire run is essentially sold out.

Whether this elegant and surprisingly introverted musical will find success on the Great White Way remains unclear, as the show goes against the grain of today's brash and loud musicals. And no, American in Paris is absolutely nothing like the latest Gershwin jukebox musical, Nice Work if You Can Get It.

Video preview here.

The curtain comes up on a worn out baby grand piano, and we are greeted by Adam, an amiable if abrupt Jewish composer (Brandon Uranowitz, in a charmingly understated performance that includes a heartfelt rendition of "They Can't Take That Away From Me" near the very end). Adam recalls being labeled as "the toast of Pa-ree" after the premiere of his ballet, and proceeds to take us way back to post-war Paris. We then see Adam at a café rehearsing "I Got Rhythm" -- "it's better in 4/4" -- with Henri Baurel (Broadway's Max von Essen, superb), a well-endowed French young man who intends to disregard the wishes of his parents and move to America to become a song-and-dance man. Also at the café is a Yankee war veteran, Jerry Mulligan (New York City Ballet star Robert Fairchild in the role played onscreen by Gene Kelly) who hopes to forget about everything that happened in the war and pursue a career as a painter.

These three men are highly engaging characters, each with their own compelling stories and desires. Yet all three concentrate their every fibre on one particular lady, the ballerina Lise (the Royal Ballet's Leanne Cope), who has her own fascinating war-time story and in the end must choose between love for Jerry and a sense of duty towards Henri. Christopher Wheeldon is known primarily for his choreography -- on tremendous display here -- though his directorial debut is a triumph of its own, particularly in beautifully woven 'split focus' scenes such as when the three male characters sing "'​S Wonderful...that she should care for me" to themselves, each thinking of Lise.

Yet although Jerry is head over heels for Lise, he finds himself, rather reluctantly, drawn into a relationship with heiress Milo Davenport (who, thanks to Craig Lucas' at times awkward book, has far too many lines about the inability of mankind to buy love with money). But Jerry isn't interested, even if Davenport (Jill Paice) sets him up with a job as a set designer at the ballet.

The first act takes some time to warm up, and Mr. Wheeldon may wish to revise the opening sequences before the show opens in New York. I would have appreciated a more energetic attempt to capture the quirks of bustling Paris (and we hear practically no spoken French; that's got to change). But then the second act unfolds, with its touching scenes -- in which the nature of Lise and Henri's relationship is revealed -- and spellbinding numbers spanning the worlds of Broadway and Balanchine, and you know you are witnessing a piece that transcends contemporary musical theatre. Henri's debut singing at a cabaret starts off tentative (Essen, who has a perfectly-placed tenor voice and superb stage presence, does a great job pretending to stumble and veer off key) and then builds into a glitzy number, "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," with a kick-line and all.

Shortly afterwards we finally enter into the world of the ballet, and Gershwin's incomparable "American in Paris" suite inspires a deeply moving and ebullient ballet sequence, ending with a flat-out gorgeous pas de deux for Fairchild and Cope. Speaking of those two ballet heavyweights, it is immensely satisfying to see them channel their years of rigorous classical training and performance into bona fide triple threat performances. (Will they do eight shows a week?). Cope has very little to sing, but her acting draws in the audience and her characterization makes it easy to see why Lise so effortlessly captivates the hearts of Adam, Jerry, and Henri. Fairchild, meanwhile, is giving a marathon of a performance, dancing up a storm and then reappearing moments later, not at all out of breath, for his next scene. He sings with a keen understanding of the lightness and line demanded by Gershwin's music, and is highly engaged with his fellow performers onstage. Mr. Lucas should consider revisiting some of Jerry's spoken parts and offer him more opportunities to establish likability and rapport with the audience.

As Henri's mother, Veanne Cox succeeds in conveying her character's rigidity, self-imposed as a coping mechanism during the war years. (Her characterization makes more sense when the Baurel family's wartime status is revealed in the second act). I already praised Uranowitz's Adam, but I would also mention that he offers many of the show's best laughs, such as when, while playing piano at a preview of the ballet, he learns that Lise is promised to Henri and he instantaneously switches to a sombre melody about the "inevitability of death." Rounding out the cast as Milo Davenport, Jill Paice portrays the unfulfilled heiress with poise and she sings beautifully as well.

The acclaimed Rob Fisher arranged, adapted, and supervised the score for American in Paris and its 21 hard-working musicians in the pit. (Paris audiences are accustomed to larger, more lush orchestras, but this is a pre-Broadway outing and 21 is about the maximum one could hope to have on 42nd street.) Fisher should be commended for the delicacy with which he has woven together Gershwin's singular tunes with his orchestral underscoring and ballet music. Notably, the score features excepts from the Concerto in F as well as the Second Rhapsody. Whereas Nice Work if You Can Get It milked the composer's music for all the laughs that could be mustered by Matthew Broderick and company, this American in Paris feels more like an extended dream sequence -- and tastefully miked, to boot (sound by Jon Weston).

Bob Crowley's costumes are pivotal in establishing the ambiance of post-war Paris -- and his circus-like outfits for the ballet are a highlight -- while his set designs are fairly spartan, maximizing room for the ballet scenes and for the somewhat overdone animations by 59 Productions.

However, there was nothing tiresome about Christopher Wheeldon's gorgeously paced piece of musical theatre paradise (unless, perhaps, you are Mr. Fairchild). New Yorkers rejoice -- Paris is coming.