The average North American views France as a hub of artifacts and illustrious history, sometimes contrary and combatant when it comes to world affairs yet portrayed on film as a country of and for lovers, unlike any other. I thought about that as I tapped the icon displaying classic in-flight movies on the back seat in front of me and brought up the film, An American in Paris, clocking in at 113 minutes, for the first stage of an eight-hour flight home late September 2014.
Listening to George Gershwin’s rhapsodic crescendos and traffic-jam dissonance played deftly by pianist and literary wit Oscar Levant, who also plays the role of Adam Cook, a struggling concert pianist in the film alongside French ballet dancer Leslie Caron as Lise Dassin, ballerina and choreographer, and actor, and dancer Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan hints more to the urban chaos of New York City during the ‘jazz age’, than Paris, and yet still resonates six-plus decades later.
Parisian music of the day was more sweet-tempered and less blue noted; accordion, acoustic guitar, violin; Piaf, Charles Trenet, Yves Montand, Jacques Brel – French chanson, tangos and gypsy music influences.
An American in Paris staging captures the essence of Paris in impressionistic terms along the lines of the pastoral and surreal landscape paintings of the 18th century, Alfred Sisley. Even Kelly’s character, Jerry Mulligan, feigns being an artist living in tempera coloured surroundings.
Kelly and Caron dazzle and dance their way through one of the finest musicals of all times. One experiences the sympathetic chemistry between two polished dancers through Gershwin originals, “Our Love is Here to Stay” and “Embraceable You.” It’s the fluid body movement, up on the toes, smooth glide across the floor, soft embraces, and charming interaction that arouse emotions.
Kelly wisely chose Caron and cast her for this role. He also choreographed the closing scene which is estimated to have cost $500,000 to shoot the seventeen-minute dance sequence to Gershwin’s American in Paris. Remember, this was 1951.
Throughout, Kelly plays the part of a starving artist, yet so athletic and masculine he could be mistaken for a high-priced fitness instructor at a posh Beverly Hills fitness club. In fact, lack of funds doesn’t seem to impede his undiminished confidence or iron-will pursuit of the most desirable female in Paris, Lise Dassin (Caron).
To further my appetite and anticipation for more Gershwin, I resurrected recordings of rare piano rolls that surfaced in 2004 – Gershwin Plays Rhapsody in Blue, ‘An American in Paris,' 'Oh, Lady Be Good,' 'Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,' ‘S Wonderful', 'Promenade,’ and others on Shout! Factory/Biograph.
To imagine all this translating to a stage musical was more than the head and heart could envisage.
The stage adaptation is much different from the sunny ways of the Academy Award celebrated movie. This is Paris, 1945 during liberation and at the end of the Second World War - struggling with its darkest decade. The remnants of war are still visible in the surrounding buildings and wounds still festering between those who were collaborators with the Nazi regime and the resistance. That tension spells out in the opening dance number with full company and Gershwin’s 'Concerto in F.'
The opening scene finds Adam Hochberg (Matthew Scott), a composer, situated at an ornate grand piano with drink in hand and the silhouette of the Arc de Triomphe far in the background. Hochberg sets the stage and begins retelling the life story of his old friend Jerry Mulligan and narrates throughout.
The story remains much the same. Mulligan, an American serviceman and aspiring painter, decides to spend more time in Paris and pursue his art and falls in love with ballerina Lise Dassin. Mulligan dances, prances and sweet talks Dassin into a date even with Dassin committed to marrying song-and-dance hopeful Henri Baurel (Ben Michael.) Hochberg makes it a three-man struggle to win over the hand of Dassin. It becomes apparent that romance, music and art medicate and addresses the city’s long-suffering afflictions.
The stage adaptation of Craig Lewis’s book brings the full ensemble front and centre. Kelly was the focal point of the grand movie and tap dance, the story. Set designer Bob Crowley illuminates the stage in ravishing colours all perfectly synched. From the flickering lights of buildings in near ruin to that many moveable parts and projections. This is eye-popping wizardry.
Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon captured a Tony award for his ballet-to-Broadway treatment. The stage adaptation is light and is absent the snap and dazzle of Gene Kelly’s footwork. This An American in Paris is more akin to Bernstein’s West Side Story, with it’s smooth, eloquent lifts and soft landings.
Canadian McGee Maddox, a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, assumes the role of Jerry Mulligan. Maddox plays Mulligan from a ballet stance. All parts are executed with grace and athleticism, yet as an actor and singer, he is less convincing. Both the Broadway version with Robert Fairchild in the lead role and screen version with Kelly easily transmit real affection and the passion of that first encounter. You readily embrace the tension of the moment and play for the new girl.
This is still one compelling and accomplished cast from Allison Walsh’s Lise Dassin, to Kirsten Scott as American philanthropist Milo Davenport, who takes more than a patron’s interest in Mulligan’s paintings and virile presence, to both Ben Michael as Henri Baurel and Matthew Scott as Adam Hochberg.
An American in Paris won Tony awards for Best Choreography, Best Lighting Design of a Musical, Best Orchestrations and Best Scenic Design of a Musical in 2015 and is playing at Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto until April 29, 2018.
And here's a performance of Gershwin's score.