Monday, May 11, 2015

An American in Paris: The Lime Lollipop

Perhaps a week after visiting Berlin was the wrong time to see a "new" American musical set in post-war Europe.  I had just been served a healthy dose of post-war European history from the European perspective so seeing An American in Paris I was disappointed in the simplistic and blunt American narrative about the war in Europe as communicated here. There are some talented people involved in this production but there's so much muddle in the madness.  Bright moments are not enough to make this musical work overall.

After the war, American solider Jerry (Robert Fairchild) decides to stay in Paris.  He wants to become an artist. He befriends composer Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz) and a wealthy scion Henri Baurel (Max von Essen). They sing, dance, and hang out but tend to keep their private lives secret from each other. I guess blame the war. Anyway, when Jerry tags along with Adam to a ballet audition to sketch the dancers he sees a mystery girl he spotted in the street once before, Lise (Leanne Cope). Lise easily wins a place at the a ballet and quickly the hearts of Jerry and Adam. She starts secretly meeting with Jerry but tells him nothing can happen between them.  Jerry agrees to this arrangement (while trying to kiss her--so I guess rape culture is alive and well in 1945) but he is also juggling a liaison with the wealthy American patron of the ballet Milo Davenport (Jill Paice) (oh good player culture is also alive and well in 1945).  Henri has a secret of his own. He is trying to become an American cabaret singer against the objections of his uptight family who expect him to carry on the family garment business and marry longtime family friend Lise.

Oh what a tangled...whatever. Each of these contrived relationships felt as inauthentic as the next. Certainly the book of the musical is the central problem but it is not helped by some talented dancers who are not talented singers or actors.  There's some fundamental problems with what the piece is trying to say.  It is supposed to be a sweep-you-off-your-feet romance with a bit of a darker core--this is post-war Paris after all.  And everyone is coming to the story with pain--some visible and some secret.  But rather than richly develop the depth of these issues--soldiers running away from war memories, the dark past of Vichy France, the delicateness of living knowing so many did not survive --the musical kind of uses them as cheap opportunities just to launch a romance out of.   Maybe I wouldn't be so hard on it but when you have something as complex and complicated as The King and I playing right now where history and world politics is  balanced so deftly against romantic themes, it's hard to give AAiP a pass on this.  Grow the fuck up AAiP and treat your audience like adults.  We can handle it and since we won't be getting much narrative drive out of the score (since it's a Gershwin jukebox musical), the least you could do is write the drama this time period deserves and that you are already cribbing from.  Instead, it's a sugary lollipop.  Like a lime lollipop--the worst flavored lollipop--sugary and a little bitter.

Because once you boil down the "romance" things start to get pretty nasty.  First,  Jerry stringing along Milo to get ahead in the art world is gross. But more importantly, all the men having a weird fixation on the nearly mute Lise is eye rolling.  They ALL love her. She's so perfect with her not talking and just being really good at ballet and being all tiny and fra-gee-lay. They just all want to "protect her." Awesome.  I love a good "helpless girl needs three men to complete her" musical.  <bangs head on keyboard for twenty minutes>  If only a man could unlock her passion that she has kept locked inside her because she has been trying to survive a WAR.  <punches self in face>  You couldn't give us some insight into her character?  The entire show is from the perspective of the three men who love her and she remains an enigma (even to us).  Sure she learns passion from Jerry and is fulfilling her ballet dreamz but she is written more as a plot device for all the men than a character making choices or calling any shots.  Why can't we write female characters today in new musicals who have voices, and use them, or have inner lives we can explore.

Yeah I get that her "mystery" is supposed to kept a secret from the audience but I don't think it accomplished what you hoped it would and in fact only served to leave her even more underwritten. Hooray for you.  Way to make a new musical feel like an old musical.  <burns bra and sets American musical canon on fire>

Too bad the creators of this musical insisted on making this a book musical. Because when they all stop saying inane, unconvincing, and vomitous things and they start dancing the characters have a lot more to say.  And it feels much more effective.  It also gains a certain level of nuance and helpful ambiguity that is completely erased when the characters start talking again.  Christopher Wheeldon is a talented choreographer.  The narrative achievement of the Second Rhapsody scene is so complete that you wonder why it took so long to set up all the book scenes before that.  The character dynamics were suddenly vital and passionate and then they dissipated with more book scenes.

The show culminates in the big ballet that all the characters have been working towards--a new modern piece to celebrate life after all the darkness of war and with the conceptual art design, pop art colors, and soaring ballerinas.  It's bright and cheery. When it's Cope and Fairchild perform their duet it gets all sorts of hot in here. Suddenly all the color is black and red and woo baby.  And maybe when the full ensemble comes back together again I had a moment thinking this is Danny Zuko does Alexander Calder. But that's not a complaint. Fairchild looking hot hot hot in his all black costume and the Calder shapes mimicked in the projections, stage design, and costumes.  But even with these successful dance sequences the overall work does not add up.  In fact, Christopher Wheeldon's direction otherwise left me scratching my head at times (what was with the Chorus Line spotlights on the main five characters after the Baurel's party scene).

When they leave it to their toes to do the talking most of the cast comes alive. God bless Robert Fairchild and his perfectly chiseled Gene Kelly ass but I didn't believe a single word that came out of his mouth. His doe-eyed American "solider" looking for happiness after all the sadness is all well and good on paper but I didn't believe he's suffered a day in his life. He's too perky, happy, and chirpy. There's a line about him picking pieces of his friends brains out of his lap during the war and I appreciate that that might be a hard sense memory to muster but it was not at all a convincing moment (and came so out of left field in the book).  But when he closes his mouth and uses his feet he's all magic. And well that's who he is and what he's trained for. And he's absolutely worth watching for that.  But please don't make him talk.  Or...put him in a show where the character is meant to be all pep, vim, and vigor.  He can't muster the dark raincloud his character needs here.  He's a fine singer but he's not at the Broadway level and I'm sorry but I think that matters.

Leanne Cope is the perfect little gamine but she's not given much to do beyond that and I'm so tired of female characters who don't really get a story of their own.  It's nice to see Max von Essen get a bigger role in this show and he's got one big production number.  But as each character is so underwritten I don't know what more he could do with Henri.

And here's the thing.  I could easily dismiss the piffle that is AAiP if it was not running head to head with Fun Home for Best New Musical.  Because that's what it is (though I want more from new musicals especially when it comes to female characters).  But Fun Home is the whole package--great score, lyrics, book, and production.  AAiP is cribbing history, Gershwins. and ballet to make a fake package of quality and richness.  It's got some crowd-pleasing moments but it is faulty at its core.  I really hope Tony voters don't get blinded by some nice ballet sequences and think AAiP is a solid musical.  It's not.


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