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Given the popularity of Dancing With the Stars and TV reality shows of its ilk, you’d think that Broadway would be teeming with dance-heavy productions. Alas, no. Thankfully, the void is now being filled with an eye-popping and ‘swonderfully romantic new adaptation of the 1951 movie classic An American in Paris, opening tonight at the Palace Theatre, with a rich score of Gershwin tunes and some of the most spectacular choreography to hit the Main Stem in years.
Top billing should go to Christopher Wheeldon, a dancer–turned–choreographer now with the U.K.’s Royal Ballet, who last worked on Broadway in 2002, earning a Tony nod for his choreography for Sweet Smell of Success. He has crafted a series of show-stopping set pieces for his talented ensemble, led by New York City Ballet principal Robert Fairchild and Royal Ballet vet Leanne Cope.
Fairchild plays the Gene Kelly role, an American vet chasing his artistic ambitions in Paris just after WWII, while Cope takes the role Leslie Caron made famous, a shy Jewish Parisian who falls for the American despite feeling obligations for the well-bred Frenchman, Henri (Max Von Essen), who helped shelter her during the war. Fairchild projects a smooth, easy-going charm that’s entirely worthy of the Kelly legacy — and he matches his progenitor’s masculine athleticism. Cope, meanwhile, radiates a demure reticence that suits her character and contrasts nicely with her undeniable skills as a dancer, particularly en pointe. And both prove to be capable singers, especially Fairchild.
In his new book, playwright Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss) has expanded the storyline of the film and moved ballet to the forefront. Cope’s Lise is now an aspiring ballerina as well as a shopgirl — which provides a more orthodox justification for the extended title ballet sequence that was the climactic, fantastical highlight of the film. Fairchild’s Jerry is commissioned to design the ballet, while his buddy Adam, a songwriter stand-in for Gershwin (Brandon Uranowitz), is tapped to compose the music.
Lucas’ new script is sketchy but mostly serviceable. He sprinkles some witty lines throughout, especially for Henri’s snooty mother (the delightful Veanne Cox), a rigid traditionalist who works herself into a high Gallic dudgeon standing as straight as the Luxor Obelisk. But he stumbles in trying to elevate Adam, a short, Brillo-coiffed American Jew, into a third rival for Lise’s affections — stacking the deck against him by saddling him with a limp from a war injury and an almost pathological tongue-tied awkwardness around women. It’s borderline offensive to make this likable fellow a romantic straw man to be shot down, particularly since this is the rare musical rom-com that whips up a happy ending only for its lead couple. (At least Adam can content himself with Gershwin-size royalty checks.)
The Palace can be a dauntingly large space to fill, but Wheeldon and his team more than rise to the challenge. Bob Crowley’s versatile set and flowing costumes, together with Natasha Katz’s lighting, provide postcard-perfect splashes of color and movement, and the clever animated projections further bring Jerry’s sketch-pad vision of Paris to life. More than mere backdrops, the stage design becomes as integral to the show as the dancers themselves.
That’s no small feat, but it’s proof that 21st-century technology can enhance a story as old-fashioned as An American in Paris. In the end, though, it’s the feet that matter — whether the “Fidgety Feet” of the high-kicking up-tempo Act 2 opener, the percussive shuffle-steps of Uranowitz and Von Essen during “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” or Cope’s magnificent en-pointe spins. When it comes to romance, who needs dialogue? It is enough to see two lovers twirl and spin and leap in perfect alignment on a well-lit stage. They’re like three-dimensional emoji. Grade: A–