Leslie Caron is, to the best of my knowledge, alive and well and living in Paris. Two of her most famous movie roles, in “An American in Paris” and in “Gigi,” came to Broadway this season. They could also be considered tributes to Vincente Minnelli (the director of both films) and Alan Jay Lerner (the screenwriter for the first and the lyricist/screenwriter for the second). Ironically, the men won Academy Awards each time; Caron didn’t.
The 1951 movie “An American in Paris” was an early example of a jukebox musical. Lerner created the story of a GI in postwar Paris (played by the great Gene Kelly) falling in love with a French dancer. All the music was by George Gershwin (who had died in 1937) and the song lyrics by his brother Ira.
Now, it is back in an elaborate production directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, and the show stars two top-tier ballet dancers: Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope. It turns out that not only can they dance superbly, but they also can deliver a song and act credibly. Cope, who is English, even puts on a French accent. To top that off, the colorful sets and costumes are by the brilliant Bob Crowley.
Fairchild is Jerry, an ex-GI in post-World War II Paris, who wants to paint, and he befriends an aspiring American composer, Adam Hochberg (the amusing Brandon Uranowitz). Adam even refers at one point to the comic sourpuss Oscar Levant, who played the part in the movie. Jerry and Adam are both in love with the young French dancer Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope).
But there is a third man who wants to marry her, Henri Baurel. His wealthy family has a textile business, but he wants to become a nightclub singer. Henri’s family sheltered Lise during the war, so she feels indebted to him.
Max von Essen plays Henri, and he acts with charm and brings the house down with his rendition of “Stairway to Paradise.”
That’s not the end of the romantic complications. A wealthy American heiress, Milo Davenport (Jill Paice), falls for Jerry and gets him hired to paint the sets for a new ballet with Adam’s music that will star Lise.
Craig Lucas’s script may be unwieldy, but the show is full of wonderful Gershwin songs, terrific choreography, and the best dancing on Broadway (and this has been a good year for dancing on the Great White Way). To cap it off, Fairchild and Cope dance to Gershwin’s jazzy and romantic “An American in Paris.”
To borrow a line from Ira Gershwin to a melody by George in “I Got Rhythm,” “Who could ask for anything more?”
The cast album of “An American in Paris” is out on Sony’s Broadway Masterworks label and is quite enjoyable, especially for such a visual show. There are longer orchestral passages than are usually found in musical theater. On the other hand, it’s all Gershwin. Of course, there are better versions of “The Man I Love” than Cope’s, and it sounds a bit peculiar to hear it with a French accent (albeit unavoidable in a cast album). Then again, even serious Gershwin collectors may not have such delightful pieces as “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” or “Fidgety Feet.” On the CD, von Essen still supplies the best singing in the show.
“Gigi” was a hit movie (based on a Colette novel, with songs by Lerner and Lowe) in which Leslie Caron played the title role. With each transition, from novel to film to theater (and there have been several films and various theater versions, including a non-singing one with the young Audrey Hepburn), some of the grit is lost. Basically, teen-aged Gigi is being groomed by her mother and aunt to become a courtesan. Nowadays, they would probably sign her up for a preparatory course to take the law boards.
Also, having an old roué sing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” (as was done in the movie) is no longer palatable, so the new musical, now closed, was sung by two women.
One aspect of this Broadway production merits comment. All the principals on stage had superior singing voices to their counterparts in the film. What the film had, though, was authenticity since the leads—Caron, Jourdan, and Chevalier—were all French.
While the set evoked Paris, the Broadway cast could have stepped out of “Music Man.” Vanessa Hudgens is pretty, can sing, dance (even doing a cartwheel) and didn’t disappoint her many fans from television. All that I would note is that she would have been more appropriately cast in a revival of “Grease.”
As for her romantic lead, Corey Cott as Gaston, he hit a note at the end of the title song that Jourdan never could have reached, and yet he lacked the earlier actor’s charm.
The best one in the cast was the always delightful Victoria Clark.
The production values were first rate: Catherine Zuber’s costumes, Derek McLane’s set, and Natasha Katz’s lighting. (She also did the lighting in “An American in Paris.”) Anyway, this production of “Gigi” was reportedly an improvement over the last Broadway revival.
Although “Gigi” had a short run, “An American Paris” will conceivably run for a very long time.
“An American in Paris”
Tickets: 877-250-2929 or ticketmaster.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Closes: open run
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.