Review by Gemma Keliher
It’s a new year, and theatre is back with a vengeance with the arrival of the new musical An American in Paris. Brisbane plays gracious host to the show’s Australian premiere and first leg of the Australian tour, and if the warm reception on opening night is anything to judge, it is sure to be hit down under. Inspired by the 1951 film of the same name, An American in Paris originally opened to audiences in Paris in 2014, before opening on Broadway in 2015 where it won four Tony Awards from a pool of nominations. An American in Paris is an example of the pinnacle of Broadway musicals, given life by some of the most talented, skilled, and heavily credited creative teams and cast.
Set in Paris in 1945, at the end of the Second World War, An American in Paris takes audiences into the heart of a city devastated by war where its citizens find hope in an emerging new way of life. An American soldier, Jerry Mulligan, decides to remain in Paris and follow his passion for art, which soon leads him down the path of finding new friendships, artistic opportunities, inspiration, and of course, love. This tale of romance isn’t without its difficulties, as love interest Lise Dassin, a talented ballerina, must decide whether to follow her head or her heart in the search for love. Themes of sacrifice, resilience, and passionate romance that weave throughout the story bring light to a modern audience also navigating their way through a newly changed world.
Don’t be apprehensive if you aren’t a history or art buff or have never seen the movie of the same title. This show sits solidly on its own, drawing all these elements into a beautiful package that doesn’t require in-depth background knowledge to enjoy. However, a basic understanding of a post-World War II era and the effect this had on cities, its citizens and the arts will season your experience and allow you to appreciate the nuanced detail within the show.
After witnessing this stellar production, it makes it hard to believe that ballet and Broadway don’t typically blend well, as the creative genius of Christopher Wheeldon brings the two together with such ease. At its heart, An American in Paris feels more like a full-length ballet that has musical numbers and dialogue woven throughout as an addition. So integral is dance and movement to the storytelling, blending elements of ballet, jazz, and tap, that the nuanced direction and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon sets him apart as one of the greats. The collaboration between The Australian Ballet and GWB Entertainment marks the first step into the musical theatre world for The Australian Ballet, and with the discovery of so many triple threats in the company it will hopefully not be the last.
Book writer Craig Lucas has found a fresh take on a classic love tale, and at no point does this emotive story drag or lull. With a glorious Gershwin brothers musical score adapted, arranged and supervised by Rob Fisher, musical hits such as I Got Rhythm will have you tapping away, and I’ll Build a Stairway To Paradise will transport you to the wonders of Radio City Music Hall. Wheeldon’s vision is well supported by an amazing Set & Costume Design by Bob Crowley, Sound Design by Kelvin Geyde, Lighting Design by Natasha Katz, Projection Design by 59 Productions, Australian Staging by Hannah Ryan, and many other acclaimed creatives.
From the opening sequence, which perfectly encapsulated the setting as well as just how well choreographed and detailed each facet of the show would be, we were in awe. Every set change and musical number was so well detailed and executed with seamless transitions. The peak of the musical was the in-show contemporary ballet production. This is where the ability of each dancer was highlighted, and I believe what sets apart this musical and cast from others. The swapping of perspectives was clever staging and well-executed and brought the audience even further into the story.
Finding the right talent is a determining factor of the success of this show, and casting director Natalie Gilhome has sourced some of the best in the business. Not only were they visually and vocally perfect for their roles but selecting performers who at their core are dancers supports the unique appeal of this musical. These are truly some of the best trained and highly talented triple threats around. Aside from the two leads, who are reprising their original Broadway roles, the rest of the cast is made up from remarkable Australian talent, including two dancers from The Australian Ballet, Cameron Holmes and Dimity Azoury, being cast as alternates for Jerry and Lise respectively.
Robbie Fairchild is a modern-day Gene Kelly and was graceful and effortless in his portrayal of the American soldier-turned-artist Jerry. His strength as a dancer, vocal abilities and natural on-stage charm presents him as a true star. As the elusive Lise, Leanne Cope was elegant and stunning to watch in her every movement, and this role cements her place as a leading lady. Both ooze the Old Hollywood charm that the roles require. With Sam Ward as aspiring singer and nightclub entertainer Henri Baurel, Ashleigh Rubenbach as the strong-willed American Milo Davenport, and Jonathon Hickey as the gifted pianist and composer Adam, these three performers were incredibly strong in their characterisations, vocal abilities, and dialects, and are shining examples of some the best talent Australia has to offer. Rounding out the cast with Helen Howard in the role of Madame Baurel for opening night’s performance, and David Whitney as Monsieur Baurel, both bringing a wealth of experience and talent to their roles. A huge congratulations to the extensive and highly skilled ensemble Sarah Bourke, Olivia Castagna, Eli Cooper, Emily Corkeron, Jasmin Durham, Amba Fewster, Christina Gibbs, Corey Herbert, Francis Lawrence, Lilyana Llyod, James Macalpine, Mitchell Mahony, Chloe Malek, Jake Mangakahia, Joe Meldrum, Joe Miller, Thomas Norman, Benjamin Obst, Sydney Patterson, Rose Shannon-Duhigg, Edward Smith, Annie Stanford, Rachael Ward, and Emma Whitefield. This show wouldn’t be what it was without such a plethora of talent, and it is inspiring to see the high standard of performers being produced here in Australia.
I hope to see many new musicals emerging with such emphasis on dance and movement as storytelling tools. This focus on dance places An American in Paris solidly amongst renowned works such as Singin’ in the Rain and West Side Story. The production had the timeless feel of an Old Hollywood film; however, the modern elements of its contemporary creation are what will ensure the longevity of this musical. The projections were well utilised and worked brilliantly with the minimalistic but thoughtful set.
All in all, this was a remarkably well staged and timeless story about passion and love, which also shines a light on how important the arts are, not only to us as individuals but to our cities and culture. This show reminds us to be resilient in the face of adversity, as these characters were able to re-identify and define themselves by their passions and the arts, as well as finding true connection to one another.
As a performer in training, what made this a fast success in my books was the balance of intimidation and inspiration that came from watching the sheer level of talent on stage. Both young and old audiences alike will find endless amounts to appreciate in the beauty of this story. An American in Paris is an exhilarating must-see new musical.
Image Credit: Johan Persson and Tristram Kenton