Thursday 18 May 2017

An American In Paris (stage musical)

Vive La Dance

An American In Paris (stage musical)
Original London Cast Dominion Theatre
25th April 2017

I don’t believe I’ve written a review of a stage musical before (unless you count the odd film score concert but... I don’t). So I wasn’t all that sure I was going to write this one up, to be entirely honest with you. There’s a big problem with this musical based on my and, presumably, other people’s expectations of it and, though I did have a nice and enjoyable time on the evening when I went and saw this with a special friend, I thought it best to maybe at least try and write something, no matter how little, to serve as a warning to people to leave their hopes at the theatre doors if they are assuming this to be a decent adaptation of the 1951 Gene Kelly, MGM musical An American In Paris.

So we arrived at the Dominion fairly early, both in anticipation of a night of cool song and dance. I remember seeing the original Star Wars at that venue when it was a top notch cinema at the tail end of 1977 and the foyer didn’t look all that different to what I remembered, to be honest. Less packed out with people, though. I was a little worried about how my favourite character, infused in the movie by the larger than life personality of Oscar Levant, would play in this show because, frankly, you can’t replace Oscar. So I grabbed a programme and then went over to the kiosk to see what merchandise they had on sale with which I could commemorate the evening. Alas, no pin badges were forthcoming but I  did spot a CD so I had a quick look at the track listing before I made my purchase. A transaction I’m sad to say I didn’t complete because as I started looking for my favourite song I found that, alongside many others, it was not present on the album. Instead, most of the songs had been replaced by other titles, which didn’t make any sense to me... other than that I presumed they were, at the very least, composed by George Gershwin.

So I didn’t buy the CD and entered the theatre in worrying anxiousness of how the performance would be. Due to my obsession with getting tickets for as near to ‘the right price’ as I could (where ‘the right price’ equals a fiver so... no joy getting anything like that here) we were quite far from the stage but, sometimes, it’s nice to take in the whole set in one go so I wasn’t too worried about that. Alas, the opera glasses all had little signs on them saying they only took the old £1 coins on them... I’d managed to divest myself of the old money so, again, found I was out of luck.

And then the show started and... yeah, it’s a nice enough show in some ways. Colourful and inventive with some top notch dance performances which I would have been happy to see under different circumstances. Those circumstances being if they would have called it something else like... I dunno... A Yankee in Montmartre or A Night At The Gershwin Club or some such. Alas, the show was proudly calling itself An American In Paris and that is where most of my troubles with it lay.

I love the original movie An American In Paris. Those MGM musicals are all pretty cool and that’s one of my four all time favourites made within a few short years of each other for that specific studio. I know the characters, I know the songs and I know the story and.... I love all of those elements. Alas, the only resemblance the characters had to the original here were their occupations (sort of), their names and... um... their ability to sing and dance. Set right after the Second World War it manages to channel the bleak depression and fallout of these turbulent times and insert them into the main text in a way the original couldn’t (and only touches upon very briefly, if memory serves). So we have a version of the Oscar Levant character, played very well by David Seadon-Young but written quite differently, who walks about with a limp from his war wounds and who is still slyly cynical but for overtly different reasons, carrying a darkness around with him on stage. More than that, instead of the film being about two men... Gene Kelly and Georges Guétary falling for the same girl, as played by Leslie Caron.... here we have Robert Fairchild and Haydn Oakley falling for Leanne Cope. This is fine of course and all the staff give credible and stellar performances but... for some reason the story has now expanded the situation to be a love rectangle rather than triangle, with Seadon-Young also trying to win the affections of the leading lady.

Not only that, but we now have undertones (which I didn’t notice myself so thanks to my friend for the heads up) of the possibility that the Henri Baurel character might even be a repressed homosexual thrown into the mix... so one has to wonder, since the girl is engaged to be married to him, why he even wants to go through with it all. So yeah.. the characters and story are all very different to the original but, to make things much worse and add insult to injury...

My worst suspicions were soon confirmed. The songs and music were stripped out almost wholesale and replaced with ‘other’ Gershwin standards. WTF? Why? Even the few they’d kept in like the classic I Got Rhythm and Stairway To Paradise (my least favourite piece in the original) were seriously tinkered with. Instead of Gene Kelly hanging out with a bunch of local kids on the street corner and going through the iconical version of I Got Rhythm we all know, we had a bunch of adults in a pub doing it and... I can’t even remember if the Gene Kelly character being played here by Robert Fairchild, is even in this actual sequence in the stage show. Probably yes but, if so, he wasn't the lead on the song. And as for Stairway To Paradise... the original, polished, professional show solo version as presented in the film was replaced with a comical two hander showing how unprofessional the Henri Baurel character is in regard to his show business side. Kinda preposterous the way that the writers had almost gone out of their way to completely replace  everything almost, it seems, for the sake of changing it and leaving their own scars upon it. So, yeah, I was not a happy bunny. Especially with my two favourites By Strauss and Tra La La La absent from the show.

The stage effects and transitions were all very good and imaginative as far as I was concerned. Although, having said that, my friend found them to be distracting and too much... like a bad Hollywood blockbuster that was so busy concentrating on its special effects that it forgot to find and express the heart of it's story and instead delivers a charmless mess, I guess.

So here I am right back to square one with this because, all in all, I had a fun night out at the theatre (I was in the very best of company)... but if you’re looking forward to seeing a version of An American In Paris on the stage then I would really lower your expectations of what you are about to see. Go for the energetically and skillfully performed dancing, the wonderful acting (including a turn by Jane Asher, no less) and extraordinary music... just don’t go in expecting similar dancing, acting or music. Or, like me, you’ll be sorely disappointed in the end result.

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