An American in Paris

Update: An American in Paris will launch a London production on 4 March 2017 at the Dominion Theatre. Broadway stars Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope will reprise their roles as Jerry and Lise. Visit the Dominion Theatre website for more information and to purchase tickets.

Christopher Wheeldon never disappoints. The choreographer makes a triumphant Broadway directorial debut with this beautiful musical, inspired by the beloved and Oscar-winning Gene Kelly movie musical, and featuring a score of iconic George and Ira Gershwin songs and compositions.

Set in post-World War II Paris, just after the liberation, the action centers on Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild), an American soldier who, rather than returning to the States, decides to remain in Paris and explore all the romance it has to offer. He befriends a composer, Adam (Brandon Uranowitz), our narrator and a fellow American, and Henri (Max von Essen), a Frenchman who longs to break free from his family's expectations and become a cabaret artist. Like most musicals, An American in Paris is a love story, and all three men set their sights on Lise (Leanne Cope), a young French ballerina.

Some might complain that Craig Lucas's book hews toward the melodramatic (it does, at times, but it also makes room for humor and warmth). Some might cry foul at Lise being not so much a fully-realized character but merely the object of the men's affection. Still others might observe that Chekhov's gun never goes off—that much ado is made about various character or plot details and then said details are left unresolved. I can understand those arguments but as the Gershwins wrote, who cares?

An American in Paris is a dance show. It's all about bringing those fantastic Gershwin songs to life and seeing dancing like we've never seen on Broadway. Considering this metric, Wheeldon and company knock it out of the park.

Because here's the thing: Christopher Wheeldon (A Place for Us, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) knows how to tell a story through dance. Just like in his narrative ballets (like Estancia and Cinderella), there's actually dancing to be found, not just graceful gestures and miming. This is particularly effective in a Broadway musical because (1) it infuses everything—including scene changes—with dance, so the show keeps moving; and (2) it allows much of the character development and plot progression to reveal itself without intrusive, expository dialogue. (To go back to the scene changes for a moment: most of the set pieces are moved on and off by the actors, as if the characters are rebuilding their city, which Parisians would have been doing at that time.)

Wheeldon has long been fascinated by the movie. In fact, about ten years ago, he created a ballet to the An American in Paris theme, a 20-minute distillation of the story (sort of like his Carousel (A Dance)). I saw that ballet just over nine years ago—it was the first Wheeldon ballet I ever saw, and that performance marked the first time I saw the New York City Ballet perform. Having spent so much time with the piece, he and his collaborators keenly tweaked moments and themes so the show resonates more with Broadway audiences. For example, I always thought that the way Jerry courted Lise, in the movie, was borderline predatory. With subtle shifts, the courtship in the musical is sweeter and more romantic.

That has much to do, of course, with our leading man, Robert Fairchild, the New York City Ballet dancer who is making his Broadway debut. Robbie's so charming and appealing (and his singing voice is more than serviceable). I've loved watching him dance over the years (from the way he shows off his charm in Susan Stroman's For the Love of Duke to his passionate dancing with his wife in Wheeldon's A Place for Us; from the modernity of Angelin Preljocaj's Spectral Evidence to the precision of Justin Peck's In Creases; from tackling George Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto to the way he lets loose in Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free... I could go on), and I've always been impressed with the way he connects with his partners. That translates well to musical theatre, as he finds a natural rapport with Uranowtiz and von Essan (we truly believe they're the three Musketeers) and Cope (we truly believe Jerry is helplessly in love with Lise). Oh, and his dancing is off the charts incredible. Watching him let loose in numbers like "Fidgety Feet," showing off his signature Robbie Fairchild flair, and then his sultry, romantic, aching, vibrant pas de deux with Cope in the titular number—I need to catch my breath just thinking about it.

For all the pining the men do over Lise, we don't get to see much of her personality, but Leanne Cope, a Royal Ballet dancer who is also making her Broadway debut, does what dancers do best and reveals depth through dance. Cope is an emotional dancer, and builds her underwritten character with spirit and grace. She is a good match for Fairchild, and the two will blow you away with their dream ballet.

It's not just a night at the ballet, though. This is still a musical, and it employs some time-tested musical theatre conventions and structures. In particular, An American in Paris uses the show-within-a-show device, just as the first book musicals did, allowing its creators to inject some otherwise out of place pizzazz. (Jerry's an artist; Lise is a dancer; Adam is a composer; Henri is a singer...) I'm referring, in particular, to the act two show stopper, "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," featuring Max von Essen (Evita) and Brandon Uranowitz. The two Broadway veterans are great featured players. Von Essen, especially, has a terrific voice and has been given a meatier character than his movie counterpart.

(I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the following: Veanne Cox's hilarious performance as Madame Baurel, a well-respected woman within the community and Henri's mother; Rob Fisher's arrangements, Christopher Austin's orchestrations and Sam Davis's dance arrangements; and Tony winner Natasha Katz's (The Glass Menagerie) lighting design that flows seamlessly with Tony winner Bob Crowley's (Once) set (and costume) designs and 59 Productions' projections (which feature Jerry's sketches of the world he sees).)

A director-choreographer on Broadway is not unprecedented; Agnes deMille, of course, made history by becoming the first one, and by introducing the dream ballet, both with Oklahoma! Being such a dance-heavy show, it makes sense that Wheeldon should serve as both director and choreographer. It ensures a unity of vision, staging that flows uninterrupted between song and scene. Christopher Wheeldon's choreography has always been interesting. He creates a choreographic vocabulary for each piece. Like Jerome Robbins (a man who was both a director and choreographer and who brought ballet and exquisite dance to the Broadway stage), Wheeldon feels the music and through his choreography, lets us see that music. With a glorious Gershwin score, I think that's just 's wonderful!

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