World War II Ends and an American Finds New Life in Paris

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, An American in Paris

Paris, France. Spring, 1945.

Songwriter Adam Hochberg sits at his piano and tells the audience all that has happened. The Allies liberated Paris in the summer of 1944 in a triumphal arrival that was filled with as much gunfire as cheering. The Nazis were later defeated and the war ended. Nothing improved much, though. Times were tough. The beloved Americans were no longer needed in Paris – or wanted. Food was scarce and people starved. The economy was in chaos and so was the government.

As he finishes, Jerry Mulligan, a GI who was a painter before the war, arrives and becomes friendly with Adam and his friend Henri Baurel, a rich Frenchman who wants to be an entertainer. The three become buddies and all fall in love with the lovely young ballet dancer, Lisa Dassin.

If you saw the movie An American in Paris, that debuted in 1951 and starred the extraordinarily gifted Gene Kelly, you will love the new musical An American in Paris that opened yesterday at the Palace Theater on Broadway, In New York. If you did not see the movie, you will love the show. If you have been living in a cave since 1951, you will still love the show. Everybody will love the show.

The musical, that won numerous Oscars and has been a staple of late night television for five decades, has been turned into a sensational and moving play, a sure fire hit and an historical tour de force with its depiction of post war Paris and the Americans, and French, men and women, who lived there, free finally of the hated Nazis who occupied the country for five long years.

The star of the show is Robert Fairchild, who plays artist Jerry Mulligan, Gene Kelly’s role. Fairchild never tries to be Kelly. He is himself and as himself is far more than enough. He is a superb dancer with graceful movements that are full of personality. He is also a fine singer and actor. He brings new life to the story. So does Brandon Uranowitz, who doe try to cover Oscar Levant in the movie role. Hochberg is the lynchpin of the story and through his takes of love and death the audience follows the tale. Leanne Cope is a wonder as the ballet dancer, Lisa, pursued by two American men and one Frenchman. So is Max von Essen as Henri, the very mixed up son of a millionaire and his wife. Jill Paice is very good as the Lauren Bacall-ish American millionaress, Milo Davenport, who dabbles in the arts and in men and has her eye on Jerry.

An American in Paris is at once a play and a ballet, The dancing, done so well by Fairchild and Cope, starts right away and carries on through a sensational ballet finale with a talented ensemble of dancers (the ballet is about half as long as the famed ballet in the film) The story is simple. Jerry decides to remain in Paris at war’s end and is sponsored by Davenport, who likes him. On the street, he bumps into Lisa and falls for her, as does just about everybody who meets her. He tries to woo Lisa but needs to hold on to Milo at the same time.

Why doesn’t Lisa succumb to the very likable Jerry’s charms? Because she has a deep, dark secret, that’s why. The revelation of the secret is the bombshell that sends the story flying towards its powerful climax.

The play has music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin and is highlighted by the tunes I’ve Got Rhythm, The Man I Love and ‘S Wonderful. This is the Gershwins at their best (music in the movie is from a 1928 Gershwins concert). Craig Lucas wrote the book.

Bob Crowley designed the lovely set, which is a combination of traditional his scenes from Paris interspersed with large, jagged blocks of color flashed on the walls from time to time. You really do believe you are on the streets of Paris in 1945. The choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, who also serves as the musical’s director, is spectacular. There is substantial dancing in the production and each number is better than the last, ending with the sumptuous grand finale ballet,

There is much history in the play and you learn much about the tentative life in the City of Lights and its people in 1945. In the play, you follow Milo Davenport as she continually bashes the French for the way they put up with, an even collaborated with the occupying German army. You learn about Parisians who risked their lives and fortunes to hide Jews from the Nazis for years. You learn about the Parisian bars and clubs that flourished after the war. You find out a lot about Parisian ballet and Opera companies that were finally able to stage swastika free seasons. You learn about the differences between the fierce young French and their elders, all trying to live in Hitler’s long and menacing shadow I wish that they had added some newsreel footage of the liberation itself, plus those stirring scenes of the French welcoming the allied troops as they drove down the Champs Elysee.

At the end of An American in Paris, you want to stand up and cheer for the show, but you want to stand up and cheer for all the brave men and women who fought the Nazis in the French Resistance, too.

Viva La France!

PRODUCTION; The play is produced by Stuart Oken, Van Kaplan, Roy Furman and others in conjunction with Elephant Eye Theatrical & Pittsburgh CLO and the Theatre de Chatelet, Set and costumes: Bob Crowley, Lighting: Natasha Katz, Sound: Jon Weston Musical score adapted by Rob Fisher. The play has an open ended run.

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