Of all the dirty secrets I have released into the public domain since becoming a journalist, here is the worst: I have never seen Les Mis. Or Phantom of the Opera. Or a whole host of other West End musicals (except Wicked – by a fluke of fate, I actually saw that twice, once in London and once in New York). I could recommend a good pub theatre in Cardiff, but I couldn’t tell you much about Mamma Mia!
So for the sake of my reputation as a theatre critic I decided that now was the time to try one. [Bit of lie. Or really, the decision was aided by Tim Bano offering to buy me dinner in return for a plus one if I went to review it. Due to the early press night start time, the dinner never happened but the Plus One-ing did. So, Timothy, if you’re reading this…]. Aside from gastronomic promises, I chose An American in Paris as My First West End Musical Review for one other reason: Christopher Wheeldon.
The choreographer’s works as Artistic Associate of The Royal Ballet and for other companies range from a gothic-tinted version of The Winter’s Tale to a gorgeously silly Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, with plenty in between. In An American in Paris, Wheeldon’s choreography is more than just embedded; it’s foregrounded in a good 50% of the scenes. Instead of opting for the more familiar pattern of: narrative scene – song and dance number, An American in Paris goes for something approaching: narrative scene – song and dance number – long dance without the song number. With both the main and supporting cast featuring a large number of ballet school alumni (predominantly from the Royal Ballet) it’s apparent that their ability to dance has been a big factor in the selection process.
In Act I, there is a languid balletic quality to the dancing both emphasising the leisurely decadence of George Gershwin’s music and the feeling of a post-war Paris not quite knowing what to make of itself or the surrounding world. Bob Crowley’s costuming and set design similarly brings this momentous exhaling-of-breath to life with Parisian boutique shoppers transformed into Dior New Look archetypes and the dawn of modernism swallowing up the classical landscape.
Early scenes present hazy cityscapes in pastel rainbows reminiscent of Monet’s saccharine psychedelic paintings of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. This early 20th century artistic impression of Europe succumbs first to Picasso in the form of masked performers darting behind moving picture frames, and later to De Stijl [I really want to write ‘De Stijl style’] blocks of primary colours. When Robert Fairchild as the soldier-turned-artist Jerry Mulligan wanders into the ballet studio to draw Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope), he’s not met with the déshabillé Degas dancers, but with a perky array of stripy hot pants and polka dot dresses. Lise later swaps a mint green mackintosh for a La La Land yellow frock, gradually updating her wardrobe in line with the art around her. There’s also a metatheatrical (metaballetic?) nod towards the changing vision of ballet with an old school Soviet-era work briefly performed under an onstage proscenium arch eclipsed by the modernist spectacle that marks Lise’s artistic triumph and that of Wheeldon, both with his expansion into musical theatre and his wider creations to date.
The potential complaint towards An American In Paris is that it includes these long periods of dance and uses visual clues to tell a substantial piece of the story. However, speaking as normally non-musical fan, one of my peeves is often the slightness of the storylines and the woodeness of the narrative scenes. Embracing the elements that the genre does best (dancing, singing and creating beautiful visuals), plus the skills of the performers, appeared as a strength rather than a weakness of the work.
Other things that I learnt from the experience of MFWEMR included the overwhelming feeling that the flashback to the 1940s was not just happening on stage. In an auditorium filled with women in evening shawls and men in two-tone brogues, my Nike Air Max felt as conspicuous as the fashion choices of the brash American Milo Davenport (Zoë Rainey) onstage. Other life lessons included witnessing an audience spontaneously applaud girls with giant feathers performing the can-can, and receiving a programme that is physically larger than my laptop (and includes giant photos of said feather-bearing women). I might not quite be ready to relinquish being the grumpy ghost of fringe theatre venues, but I will concede that – even without dinner – this was actually really good fun.
An American In Paris at the Dominion Theatre is currently booking until 30th September 2017. Click here for more details.