An American in Paris (The Australian Ballet and GWB Entertainment)
QPAC, Lyric Theatre
January 8 – 30
“An American in Paris” ‘S Wonderful, without doubt, from even its opening moments. The keenly-awaited Australian premiere collaboration between The Australian Ballet and GWB Entertainment begins with the simple imagery of a lone piano on stage, before we are launched into theimmediate aftermath of French liberation from Nazi occupation post-World War II. Arising from the ashes of the conflict is a city of explosive colour and energy that becomes a character itself as much as a backdrop to its ensuring love story.
Inspired by the Academy Award-winning MGM film, the four-time Tony Award-winning Broadway musical tells the entrancing story of a young American ex-soldier, Jerry Mulligan (New York City Ballet principal dancer Robbie Fairchild) and a beautiful French ballerina Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope of London’s Royal Ballet). Mulligan has remained in Paris following the Nazi occupation’s downfall to try his luck as an artist, alongside fellow (now-wounded) veteran Adam Hochberg (Jonathan Hickey). Young Parisian dancer Lise, soon becomes the romantic focus of both men, without them realising her beau is their new friend, aspiring performer Henri (Sam Ward).
With wealthy American patron, Milo (Ashleigh Rubenach) financing the ballet that Adam is writing, in which Lise will appear, the show is, at its core, a tribute to art. Dance is central to its experience from the start; with inventive choreography including intricate ballets, musical theatre and jazz style numbers, chorus lines and tap routines. Act One’s late montage literally brings art to life as we are danced through the Parisian art world, the ballet’s rehearsals and a harlequin masked costume party at which Jerry realises Lise is engaged to his friend.
Under Christopher Wheeldon’s precise direction and choreography, the show is a celebration of both spectacle and skill. Reprising their roles as Jerry and Lise, Broadway and West End leads Fairchild and Cope cannot be faulted. Their signature pas de deux are enchanting in their dreamy romanticism as they soar across the stage. Fairchild, in particular, glides about with effortless ease, but also clear control, creating lithe lines that even those without intimate dance knowledge can appreciate.
With so much dance, the score features less than the usual number of songs for a musical and while sweeping romance is at the core of its identity, lively ensemble numbers, such as when the three main men bond in friendship and imagination of a brighter future in Act One’s toe-tapping ‘I Got Rhythm’, also feature amongst the highlights.
Familiar George and Ira Gershwin tunes such as ‘But Not For Me’, ‘’S Wonderful’ and ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ soar gorgeously under Vanessa Scammell’s musical direction. In particular, Act Two’s ‘Stairway to Paradise’, in which Henri’s fantasises of performing an elegant number in Radio City Music Hall is an absolute art deco, heel and toe, tux and tails triumph of ritzy showgirl razzle dazzle.
A stunning design aesthetic elevates every scene as the enchantment of Paris is realised. Minimal set pieces dance across the stage establishing scene-by-scene locations and clever design allows sets to transform before audience eyes. Costumes changes, too, often happen as if by magic, such as when Lise blossoms from a shop girl to prima ballerina and detailed impressionistic projections awash things with beautiful Monet-esque watercolour palettes.
The culmination of artistry that is Act Two’s lengthy titular ballet is a masterpiece of design. The elaborate number is enlivened by the orchestra’s bright jazz sounds and projections of avant-garde geometric Picasso-esque shapes. Its unique blend of classical and modern dance makes for sensational show-stopping number that allows for celebration of The Australian Ballet dancers, and even a mid-routine opening night applause for Fairchild’s series of perfectly turned out pirouettes.
Along with its beauty, “An American in Paris” has its humorous moments, such as when Act Two opens to the energetic number ‘Fidgety Feet’, which only adds to the show’s essential charm. The classy production uniquely takes its time, but also never sits still within the extravagance of its top production values. And while its lovely lavishness may be what impresses most, its optimistic romantic escapism to Paris, appropriately also lingers in reminder that from darkness can come light.
Photos c/o – Darren Thomas