Reviews/Musical Theatre

Parisian affair has all the right moves

11 July 2022

The cast of An American in Paris barely puts a foot wrong and Nina Levy is swept along for the ride.

An American in Paris, The Australian Ballet and GWB Entertainment ·  
Crown Theatre Perth, 10 July 2022 ·  

There’s a risk baked into the choreography of An American in Paris.  

The two lead performers need to be classically trained dancers but, as in any musical, they’ve also got to have the singing and acting chops to pull off a starring role. 

It’s a risk that has proved worth taking for internationally-renowned British dance-maker Christopher Wheeldon, the musical’s director and choreographer.  

An American in Paris has received popular and critical acclaim since its world premiere in Paris, in 2014, and is finally gracing Perth’s Crown Theatre after the WA leg of its 2022 Australian season had to be postponed due to border closures earlier this year. 

With a score that could also be called George and Ira Gershwin’s Greatest Hits, gorgeously adapted and arranged by Rob Fisher, the stage show follows the fortunes of an American artist living in Paris.  

So far, so similar to the 1951 film of the same name that inspired this production. Craig Lucas’s book, however, wheels the setting back to the immediate aftermath of World War II and, in doing so, allows for a more nuanced story to unfold.  

Though the plot driving device is relatively simple – three guys in love with the same girl – the narrative has some complexity. Jerry Mulligan (the artist and former soldier) falls for Lise Dassin (a ballerina on the cusp of stardom) but she’s holding back on him for reasons she won’t divulge. One of those turns out to be the fact that she’s engaged to Jerry’s wealthy friend Henri Baurel, but why does she feel obliged to remain with him when it’s clear she’s not in love with him? 

Then there’s the third lovestruck man, war-injured pianist Adam Hochberg, and an American philanthropist, Milo Davenport, who takes more than a professional interest in Jerry.  

A man wearing smart pants and braces with a colourful tie looks at a smiling blonde woman wearing a golden dress, with many pairs of dancers behind them, set against a large gilded mirror and dramatic purple backdrop.
Ashleigh Rubenach and Cameron Holmes step out in style in ‘n American in Paris’. Photo: Darren Thomas

At times the story feels last century in more senses than one (can we please retire the tired old trope that if you keep nagging a woman who says “no” she will eventually say “yes”), but it’s got enough spice to keep the audience on board. 

It’s dance, however, that both drives and steals the show. 

Wheeldon takes full advantage of the glorious Gershwin pick-and-mix score, leaning into the jazz era whilst retaining contemporary sensibilities. From limbs that run away joyfully in “Fidgety Feet”, to the crisp modernist lines of the ballet-within-the-musical (an absolute treat for ballet fans), to the glamourous chorus-line extravagance of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”, there’s an exuberance to this choreography.  

And choreography bursts out of every pore of the work. It’s in the jaunty angular shapes of pedestrians who set scenes, in the pirouetting on and off stage of Parisian lamp posts and apartment silhouettes, in delicate animated scenery that dances into detail before our eyes. Against Bob Crowley’s vibrant sets and 59 Productions’ whimsical visuals, dance is the through-line, seamlessly segueing between action and fantasy.

The cast of ‘An American in Paris’ performing ‘I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise’. Sam Ward, as Henri Baurel, is centre. Photo: Darren Thomas

Thanks to the delayed season, Perth won’t see original cast members Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope in the lead roles of Jerry and Lise, but alternate cast members Cameron Holmes and Dimity Azoury (both of The Australian Ballet) easily won over the opening night crowd, embodying their roles with zest and shine. Particularly notable is their dream sequence in the ballet-within-the-musical. Though their singing voices – not surprisingly – don’t have the oomph of their musical theatre-trained counterparts, his charming swagger and her gentle charisma see them through. 

In the role of Henri, Sam Ward won me over completely, his rich tenor voice coupled with perfectly-timed physical comedy. With her show-stopping vocals, Ashleigh Rubenach, as Milo, oozes New York-style chutzpah, undercut by vulnerability.  As Adam, crooner Jonathan Hickey strikes a poignant and endearing note, while Anne Wood is delightfully dry and droll as Henri’s mother, Madame Baurel.  

The ensemble – joined by four new cast members in Perth – dazzled on opening night, while the Perth season’s orchestra, under the baton of musical director Vanessa Scammell, gave a superb rendition of the demanding score. 

Those four Tony Awards the musical won back in 2015?

They’re well-deserved. An American in Paris will dance into your heart. 

An American in Paris continues at Crown Theatre until 24 July 2022. 

Pictured top: Dimity Azoury and Cameron Holmes embody zest and shine in ‘An American in Paris’. Photo: Darren Thomas

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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