If George Gershwin’s music is flowing to my ears, I can forgive a lot.
And in the case of 12-time Tony Award nominee “An American in Paris,” a visually spectacular adaptation of Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 film, some things need to be forgiven.
The movie, written by Alan Jay Lerner and choreographed by its star, Gene Kelly, was derived from Gershwin’s 1928 symphonic poem meant to capture the impressions of a young American’s first visit to the City of Light.
The film’s protagonist, an aspiring artist named Jerry, becomes friends with a young American composer, falls in love with a beautiful shop girl and ultimately must extricate himself from a sticky relationship with a wealthy patron.
Craig Lucas, a playwright whose success transcends his limited abilities, takes the basic story elements and constructs a more elaborate and cumbersome narrative in his book for this eye-popping dance show. The goal from beginning to end appears constant: Give director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon every opportunity to fill the stage with breathtaking movement, color and light.
This he does, aided considerably by his designers — Natasha Katz (lighting) and Bob Crowley (sets and costumes).
Crowley’s wildly imaginative scenic design, working in concert with projections designed by 59 Productions, creates a visually intoxicating world for the play. The show relies on a steady flow of optical illusions — many of them subtle, a few simply spectacular — to draw us in.
At one point a golden, gauzy Parisian cityscape hovers in the distance. At times vertical panels spin and rearrange themselves to suggest streets and alleys. And elements of World War II-era visual art and design come into play as enormous abstract geometric shapes form the ever-shifting backdrop for the climactic ballet.
Lucas and Wheeldon, for no rational reason I can perceive, cut some of the best George-and-Ira Gershwin songs used in the film — including “Embraceable You,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “Our Love Is Here to Stay.”
Other Gershwin material has been interpolated into the Broadway show. Some of the tunes, such as “The Man I Love” and “’S Wonderful,” work quite nicely. One or two, particularly “Fidgety Feet” (from the old Gershwin musical “Oh, Kay!”), are awkward excuses for yet another big dance number.
Song-selection quibbles aside, a bigger problem is Lucas’ book. I have no trouble with the way he begins the story immediately after the close of World War II. Jerry (Robert Fairchild) has been traumatized by his service in the American Army and wants to start a new life in Paris. He sees the world through a new, clean lens.
But much of Act 1 seems a laborious effort to capture the tone of frothy stage musicals of the 1930s. Unfunny jokes are repeated, and attempts at “sophisticated” dialogue lack a crucial ingredient — wit.
Lucas constructs a complicated backstory through which we discover that Lise (Leanne Cope), the shop girl who also happens to be a divine dancer, survived the war though the heroic efforts of Henri (Max von Essen) and his family, whose fortune is tied up in textiles. This family of art patrons is under a shadow regarding their possible collaboration with the Nazis, but that all becomes a moot point when their inherent nobility is made clear.
Henri, who secretly aspires to become a nightclub star, is engaged to Lise, but she and Jerry are head-over-heels, while Adam (Brandon Uranowitz), the young composer, pines for her from a melancholy distance. Jerry, meanwhile, finds himself in an awkward relationship with Milo Davenport (Jill Paice), a wealthy American arts patron who likes the idea of keeping Jerry as one of her possessions.
The exposition required to explain the relationships eats up a lot of stage time, and by intermission I feared I was witnessing a debacle, despite the show’s 12 Tony nominations. But things change in Act 2. The drama becomes more immediate, as do the high stakes for each character.
And, of course, Act 2 is where we get what we came for: the ballet constructed on Gershwin’s 1928 composition. The stage is filled with skilled dancers, but Fairchild, a soloist with the New York City Ballet, is amazing to watch. He incorporates some of Kelly’s aggressive athleticism, but his weightless elegance brings to mind Fred Astaire.
Cope, who trained at the Royal Ballet School, is as skilled as her resume suggests, but she never captures our attention the way Fairchild does. And Fairchild does it only when he’s dancing. As an actor, he adequately conveys Jerry’s goofy naivete, but the schtick grows thin. The best actor in the show is Uranowitz, who as a talented young composer whose war injuries left him with a permanent limp brings gravitas and simple believability to the stage. Adam is the character we root for.
This show’s imperfections are there for everyone to see. But the quality of the dance, the mind-boggling visual design and, of course, the timeless music by George and Ira Gershwin will linger in my memory for a very long time.
Trussell on Broadway
▪ Our intrepid theater critic, Robert Trussell, reviewed several of the Tony nominees last week in New York. Look for his review of “The King and I” on C3.
▪ See Trussell’s reviews of “Airline Highway” and “The Visit” on the entertainment page of KansasCity.com.
▪ The Tony Awards are June 7 and will air live on CBS.
▪ “An American in Paris” is running at the Palace Theatre, 47th and Broadway, New York. For more information, call 800-653- 8000 or go to AnAmericanInParisBroadway.com.