An American in Paris

When I was watching An American in Paris on PBS, I fell in love with the musical. I had heard of the show before, but I shared no interest in seeing it because I thought it was a piece with spectacular dancing as the raison d’être and no real story to follow. It proved me wrong and I am so glad I watched the production.  

The tale opens with pianist and composer Adam Hochberg telling the audience about the day his friend Jerry Mulligan came to Paris.  Against the scenery of 1945 liberated France, a mysterious girl strikes US Army Lieutenant Jerry’s fancy after observing her in the bustling streets of Paris. To pursue his passion for painting after the war, Jerry purposely misses his train home to America in favor of staying in the city of love. Adam helps Jerry get settled in Paris. He also takes Jerry to the Paris Ballet, where he is the pianist accompanying auditions to discover new dancers for the ballet. While attending the auditions, Jerry bumps into the independent American philanthropist, Milo Davenport, who invites Jerry to a party to introduce him to gallery owners. Milo also finds him charming and good looking, and she hopes for a romantic relationship. Lise Dassin is the woman Jerry saw on the streets and is one of the dancers auditioning for the ballet. Adam immediately falls in love with Lise’s talent and beauty. Lise earns the role of the prima ballerina and shun’s Jerry’s attempts at friendship because of her obligation to Henri Baurel, son of the wealthy art patrons who have given Lise a home. At home, Henri is drafting a letter to ask Lise for her hand in marriage. Hence, the love quintet is established.

The second time Jerry and Lise meet, she insists they should just be friends. However, sparks fly between the two. Milo is only interested in Jerry because he can escort her to events and because he is attractive—Jerry will not buy into Milo’s schemes, because he doesn’t love her. To contrast, he really loves Lise and will do anything to be with her. Meanwhile, Lise is dealing with the sadness of losing her parents to the Nazi abduction and with the uncertainty of marrying Henri as expected, or holding out for true love. Henri is trying to find the balance of living the life he would like as a nightclub entertainer versus what his family expects of him. He is also navigating how to propose to Lise. Ultimately, all the relationships sort themselves out, and Lise and Jerry get their romantic fairytale at the end of the musical.

From the start of the musical, Robert Fairchild performs the part of Jerry Mulligan with such charm and charisma that a viewer would think he is a seasoned professional, and not someone who is making his debut as an actor. Likewise, in her first Broadway role, Leanne Cope dances into the realm of musical theatre with grace and poise as Lise Dassin.

Some shows use dance, like the dances Lise performs, to further tell a piece of the narrative. However, An American In Paris uses dance throughout the entire musical to tell both the story and explain the emotions of the characters. Dance plays such an integral part in the storytelling of this show that at times, it reads like a ballet to the audience. Seeing the piece as a dance-heavy production or seeing that the action is being expressed through dance only adds to the fantastic work; it takes the performance to the next level of a sophisticated musical. Fittingly, the two leads are dancers. However, the ensemble and supporting characters also dance to tell the tale. What makes this show different for me is that it has a variety of dance styles including ballet, tap and contemporary movement—styles that all work together to give a different look from all these characters’ point of view. I also enjoyed how actors who were not as classically trained in dance were performing with the same amount of joy and gusto as the two ballet leads.

All in all, An American In Paris is a tale that is fully formed, and I was pleasantly surprised as I watched it. I initially wrote it off as a dance show with a basic plot about two people who fall in love at first sight. While this is the premise of the production, the story is rich with supporting characters and drama that has you enthralled from the beginning. A person experiencing the show for the dance will also enjoy the story because the narrative has a way of keeping you pleased and on the edge of your seat, constantly wondering if Jerry and Lise will be together. For an audience member who seeks an expanded character study beyond romance, this musical has that too. The two leads and the supporting cast offer different personalities, histories and values making them a delight to observe because the interactions are never the same. Viewers of any age will be pleased because it is a tale about human connection and discovering love in times of hardship.

A classic score and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin provide the perfect backdrop for this musical. Classic music in the American and world songbooks is revived with new life from the score; the genre takes on new meaning when you hear the soaring tunes for the first time. Additionally, the way the music expands on the plot and action is one of my favorite aspects of this piece.

I hope this introduced you to the world of the delightful musical, An American In Paris. If you have not become familiar with the production, check out the PBS website, where you can watch it until the end of this month:

What are some of your favorite musicals that use dance to tell the story? Let us know.

(Photo: Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope in An American in Paris. Photo by Matthew Murphy.)