Get Real with Carla Stockton
I have lost count of how many times I saw An American in Paris, the 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. I do know it was the second movie my dance-obsessed, Kelly-worshipping mother took me to see – the first was The Red Shoes – and that we went to see it at least twice on its first run, when I was far too young to understand much more than the dancing, and that we saw it at least a few more times, whenever it came back around to a theater near us. I didn’t mind. How could I?
It was a film of stunning, reassuring perfection, and I still can’t get enough of it. It remains a sumptuous audio-visual experience that still leaves me feeling breathlessly light, capable of flying. And so very simple. American boy artist stationed in postwar Paris loves the city so much he decides to stay; thereafter, boy meets girl (danseuse), falls in love, is pursued unsuccessfully by a cougar gallery owner while girl remains true to her original fiancée, but all’s well that ends well, when he marries girl and lives happily ever after, dancing lyrically down the Left Bank in a perfectly painted dream.
No strings on him, our hero was a real boy with wings on his feet and a gorgeous girl to float off into the sunset with. Pure pleasure.
Which is why I felt compelled to see the musical version now playing on Broadway.
Despite the reviews to the contrary, I expected that the changes to the show would be minimal. I knew better but ignored myself. I had read the reviews. I knew that the book by Paul Lucas and the direction/choreography by Christopher Wheeldon had leaned toward a noirish rendering of the film’s world, and I also knew that the dancing was purported to be phenomenal. Wheeldon, after all, was Principal Dancer and Choreographer of the New York City Ballet, trained at the Royal Ballet School. How could this Broadway show not be an extravaganza of eye candy?
Which is why I decided to see it. I had had a difficult month, and, as the friend with whom I saw it advised, some escape seemed in order. But on one level I wish I hadn’t. I would like to have retained my illusion that An American in Paris on Broadway could be as satisfying as its original film iteration.
Let me say here that I saw An American in Paris only two months after seeing Hamilton. So it’s hard to assess how I would really feel about the show if I had not seen the incomparable just weeks before. Would I have been as disappointed? Would I have been as critical? Would I have been as bored?
Actually, I think the answer is a resounding “yes.” Knowing what can be done on stage, what decidedly did not happen on this stage certainly augmented the disappointment in this highly touted, flat piece of work, but I know that the Hamilton bar is way too high to measure anything else by comparison. I saw Fun Home less than a week after Hamilton, and that play, though not in the same league, lived up to the standard I would expect for a great Broadway show. This An American in Paris just failed in every way to grab me. It had no emotional import, no bells and whistles, no extraordinary anything to captivate and hold me.
From the start, I knew my enjoyment quotient was in jeopardy. The opening establishes that this story begins at the moment WWII ends. The boy Jerry Mulligan (Garen Scribner) is discharged and could go home but decides to stay in the devastated city. He meets the show’s narrator (Brandon Uranowitz) , a stand-in for George Gershwin himself, who tells Mulligan he is a Jew and has stayed in Paris in order to take advantage of the collective Parisian guilt and is living rent-free over the bar where he works. Theoretically, the plot thickens. Perhaps this will be more complex and will require thinking.
But no. Nothing is explored in depth. Like the very two-dimensional mediated design of the show, the story skims along the surface of some serious issues but never plumbs further than the very exoskeleton, denigrating the real challenges of rebuilding hearth, home and heart. If the two-dimensionality of the set design was meant to suggest that this is but a fable, a shell of a tale, intended for pure enjoyment, then why complicate things by raising questions of morality and duty, ethics and responsibility? In the end, the effect was total buzzkill, the annihilation of of mindless entertainment and an invitation to laugh at the mediocrity of the script.
I did suspend my distaste occasionally . . . when the dancing turned superb. There were, in fact, moments when the dancing was almost transcendent. Though those moments were too few and far between, they were unfailing whenever Garen Scribner, a remarkable dancing talent, was the featured soloist. The large production numbers were too crowded, too frenetic and unfocused for my taste, and I found I could not watch because there was too much conflicting, competing business among the ensemble. But at least the dances were richly substantive.
Then again, the lack of substance was exacerbated for me by the absence of acting. No one except for Brandon Uranowitz, who was both believable and engaging as the composer Adam Hochberg, seemed even aware of what acting might be. The players consistently pretended. They did not act. No one listened to anyone else. No one even made eye contact with anyone else, and there was a dearth of chemistry and generosity among the players. Scribner as Jerry Mulligan and his love interest Leane Cope as Lise, the leading pair of lovers, lacked a spark that convinced me they so much as liked each other. Even in their dancing, they failed to connect; she was wooden, lacked fluidity, kept an imaginary wall between them, and while he was light on his feet and at one with the music, their pas-de-deux exhibited absolutely no signs of passion or desire.
Since I have extensive experience directing and assessing high school theater, I tend to measure professional productions by how youth productions of the same shows might look. Any number of my high school performers – many of them now playing in various shows on and off Broadway, choreographing in New York and overseas, teaching acting and musical theater, etc., etc. – would have fared better in the performance of this musical play. In the final moment, the one that should transport both audience and characters to heights of ecstasy, Scribner was spectacular, but Cope failed to meet his splendor, and their last kiss looked like the first first rehearsal attempt by neophyte high school actors . . . awkward, self-conscious, uncommitted.
Had I been coaching these players, I would have reminded them to commit to their moments and then live them. Perhaps the director chose to have his ensemble comport themselves like toys waiting to be called to life, and without attempts at depth of story, the effort would have made sense. If the characters in this play were all just images on a canvas come to momentary life, perhaps the lack of commitment would have played well. But instead the effect on me was to make me feel as though I were watching an elementary school pageant.
I must interject here – and this is often the case when I go to the theater – the other audience members for the most part seemed to love, love, love the production. They oohed at the Mondrian-inspired set and costumes that appeared at the end that just made me want to laugh; they sobbed and cheered when Jerry and Lise finally got together, and they stood on their feet to give the obligatory standing ovation.
They are the lucky ones. It would have been much more fun to have been they, to have been in love with this stunningly bland piece of drab Americana.