An American In Paris, A New Musical

Rebecca Varidel
2nd May 2022

Brilliant Merry Magic, Song and Dance Heaven

An American In Paris is one of the best things seen on the Sydney stage for a long long time.

Audiences will know all the Gershwin songs, and can sing-a-long (in your head in the theatre, and out loud once you leave the show).

I've Got Rhythm
The Man I Love
S' Wonderful
I'll Build A Stairway to Paradise
They Can't Take That Away From Me
... and more...

And of course, the name sake title music of An American In Paris - which famously is scored with unusual percussion including French taxi horns. Written in 1928, George Gershwin brought back actual Parisian taxi horns to be played in the American debut of his symphonic poem.

Whether you do, or whether you don't know 'em, the songs of An American In Paris deliver in themselves the gift of a joyful happy heart and soul. And even those who didn't know these songs before the show will wake up still singing them the next morning.

The iconic 1951 Vincent Minelli film of An American In Paris starred Gene Kelly, classical ballerina Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Georges Guétary and Nina Foch, won six Academy Awards including Best Picture, and was released in Australia the following year. Ballet was certainly an important part of that film.

Now 70 years later, our Australian Ballet under the artistic direction of David Hallberg has taken its first stride into musical theatre, which unveils the importance of ballet and dance in this show. Yes, An American In Paris is bigger than musical theatre, more like a magnificent musical theatre and ballet fusion. Big call, yet for this first association by The Australian Ballet, the dance is elevated to the most sublime within the history of musical theatre in this country. Every line, every extension, is complete perfection, yet delivered with a freedom beyond its original art form, declaring its American pop culture roots.

The splendour of this joyful show pivots around the five central characters: Jerry Mulligan, Adam Hochberg, Henri Baurel and their romantic interests, Lise Dassin and Milo Davenport. All are brilliantly performed. Harmonies from the leads elevate the Gershwin tunes to next level. All are triple threats, dancers, singers, actors.

All expand their roles beyond their film doubles, it's hard not to compare. Robbie Fairchild, although a Principal with the New York City Ballet for eight years, has a little Gene laced in.

"I didn't want to be Gene but wanted my interpration to be an homeage, a nod to him" says the star of the man who inspired him to be a dancer.

You couldn't aspire to a finer performance from a leading man. Robbie Fairchild made his Tony nominated Broadway debut as Jerry Mulligan in 2015.  Given he has now performed this role around the world, his craft is perfectly polished, and seemingly at ease, yet retaining a freshness that is truly heartening. The components of his role beyond ballet, extending to contemporary dance, acting and singing declare although he started out in ballet, he is now a true triple threat. 

Holding hands with him is Leanne Cope who undertook eight years of training at the Royal London Ballet. As Lise, she cradles us with every nuance of her role. Her beaming smile beckons through her vulnerability. No wonder three men fall in love with her every night.

Jonathan Hickey gets my special applause. Admittedly, I was a little bit in love with Oscar Levant on film, and a little bit apprehensive about seeing this Adam Hochberg on stage. It's a difficult and diverse role. Hickey is gifted and utterly masterful as the Jewish composer. It feels like he is giving it all, yet somehow he's simultaneously also just a little bit laid back. That shy repose from the talented, humble and self doubting creative. And then, he changes it up when we least expect it.

Further blazing the Aussie talent trail, Sam Ward (Henri Baurel) and Ashley Rubenach (Milo Davenport) exuberantly light up the stage to complete the leads. In his complex role, Sam Ward grabs all the subtleties before deliver his big number with total razzmatazz. Ashley Rubenbach won me. I feel I like her heiress even better than the film. Brimming with confidence, overpowering but in a more 21st century 'I've got this', you could almost fall in love with her and not her money.

An American In Paris is directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon OBE. Patrons of The Australian Ballet will be familiar with his work, there is a long association. Wheeldon first created a dance set to Gershwin music for the New York City Ballet in 2005.

"... I am honoured to be leading the team which has made a new musical version based on MGM's beloved 1951 movie, but with some important changes."

For one, our show invites the audience into a world created from narrative ballet; it is here that we combine this language of ballet with jazz and tap associated with old Hollywood musicals to tell our story. We also change the setting, moving from Paris in the early 1950s, to post Second World War. Craig Lucas and I wanted the love story to play out in a Paris emerging from the shadow of Nazi occupation. That's where our show begins" Wheeldon explains.

It's no secret, I was silently singing and dancing in my Sydney opening night seat. There was jubilant applause for many of the numbers such as the glamorous big cabaret piece I'll Build A Stairway To Paradise resplendent with towering white feather headdresses, sparkling showgirl costumes, men in black tie with top hats and canes. The rousing applause moved into standing ovation at curtain call. And yes, we were singing in the streets outside the Theatre Royal Sydney, and I was still singing when I woke up this morning. I want to see it again soon.

An American In Paris a new musical, from GWB Entertainment & The Australian Ballet, is performing at The Theatre Royal Sydney until 3 July 2022.

Photos by Darren Thomas supplied by TS Publicity