I want to take you back to the 1950s where the legend that is Gene Kelly is not only set to star in a new film, but a film that he also choreographed himself. An American in Paris, displayed in beautiful Technicolor, wows audiences, and is nominated for a whopping 9 Academy Awards – taking home seven of them, including Best Picture and an Honorary Award for Gene Kelly himself.
Skip forward to the present and I had never personally heard of this film, or the subsequent musical production that I was about to attend. So, I put on the film and was wowed by the incredible dance numbers, tight and clean tap dancing (I do love me some tap dancing), and a jaw dropping, spectacular ballet sequence that closes out the film.
Now, if the film was that good, surely enough the 4-time Tony Award winning musical production would knock my socks off. Well, it kind of did and, sadly at times, kind of didn’t…
With music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, and book by Craig Lucas, An American in Paris is currently touring Australia thanks to GWB Entertainment and The Australian Ballet. This is also a first for The Australian Ballet as they have never before delved into the medium of musical theatre, and it was a fantastic first attempt.
If you are a fan of the film, the musical production follows the same premise, with a few creative liberties to suit the stage. The production opens with a single grand piano in the centre of the equally as grand State Theatre stage. Adam Hochberg, portrayed by Johnathan Hickey, limps onto the stage, and begins to tell the story of how his good friend Jerry Mulligan, played by Robbie Fairchild came to France. The country had just been liberated from the Nazi occupation and a giant French flag sweeps across the stage. Like magic, the piano is gone and the ensemble swing into the opening dance number. It is here where Jerry catches the gaze of a mysterious girl, whom we quickly discover to be female lead Lise Dassin, performed by the graceful Leanne Cope.
I was instantly impressed by the dancing. After all, it is a production by The Australian Ballet. However, when the musical side of the production began, I felt something was off. It wasn’t the vocal performances or the music from the orchestra, but more the mix and timing that felt a little strange. Just little things like the lead vocals felt overpowered by the ensemble during big numbers. Or the microphones that copped a bit of static from movements. As this is The Australian Ballet’s debut performance into the musical medium, these can easily be forgiven and quickly improved on.
There is plenty to love about this production. The set design by Bob Crowley is mostly minimal, with what I can only describe as over-sized, privacy screens on skates that roll around on stage. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you add in the projection imagery by 59 Productions, these large, blank canvases are brought to life. Being that the production is set on the life of a passionate artist, the imagery used are sketches and paintings of buildings and landscapes. This design choice is extremely effective and is the perfect companion to the story that is unfolding on stage. The minimalist set also leaves plenty of real estate for the cast to showcase what they do best, DANCE!
Aside from one tap dancing number that surprisingly felt a little loose, the dance sequences displayed by The Australian Ballet cast are exceptional. I have never been to the ballet before and I must say, I was quite impressed with what I saw. The entire cast were brilliant, but it was the incredible performances by Robbie Fairchild and Leanne Cope that steal the show.
Just like in the film, the story ends with a grand, over the top, remarkable number that completely takes over. In the musical production, this number is the penultimate performance of ballet dancer character Lise Dassin and her lover Jerry Mulligan, and it is here that Fairchild and Cope shine. I have seen many dance sequences in many musicals, but never have I ever witnessed anything as stunning as what I saw last night. Fairchild and Cope are gracefully light on their feet yet execute each jump and twirl with a surgical-like precision. I am extremely thankful I got to see these two talented individuals dance their hearts out.
As for the rest of the musical itself, I felt that the creative liberties taken by the stage production improve on the original story. I enjoyed how it was a narrative, with Johnathan Hickey telling the story. Sam Ward’s portrayal of Henri Baurel is to be commended for not only speaking in a French accent, but to also sing with one too. Ashleigh Rubenach as the blonde bombshell and entrepreneur Milo Davenport takes command in every scene that she is in. And of course, Anne Wood with David Whitney as Madame Baurel and Monsieur Baurel that bring some dry humour to the story.
Overall, An American in Paris is a brilliant first attempt at musical theatre by The Australian Ballet and with a little fine tuning, they could be a formidable force in the future of Australian musical theatre.
If, like me, you have never seen ballet before and have been a fan of musical theatre for a long time, An American in Paris is a great steppingstone into ballet. And, if you are a fan of the film, this production is just as good.
An American in Paris is currently playing in Melbourne at Art Centre Melbourne‘s State Theatre until the 23rd of April. It then hits Sydney from the 29th of April, Perth from the 9th of July and finally Adelaide from the 23rd of January 2023.
For tickets and more information head to https://americaninparis.com.au
Photography by Darren Thomas.