If there is such a thing as a “perfect” musical, then “An American in Paris” surely qualifies. This sumptuous production, based on the classic 1951 movie, flawlessly synthesizes song, story, and dance in a stunning and emotionally rich experience likely to take up near-permanent residence at the Palace Theatre.
Musicals based on movies have mixed success, but under the genius direction and choreography of Christopher Wheeldon, with a new book by Craig Lucas that eschews the gaudy jingoism of the movie, the result is a darker and more complex study of people at the end of World War II trying to rebuild a life in Paris.
Jerry Mulligan has decided to stay in Paris rather than go home. As the city wobbles back to some of its former glory, he falls in with another American, Adam, a composer, and Henri, a would-be nightclub performer who is the scion of a textile empire. As fate has it, they all take a fancy to a young dancer, Lise. The strength of Lucas’ book, however, is not in the plotting but in the deeper characterization he brings to the principals, which he manages with lovely economy.
The score is Gershwin, so it’s filled with favorites, like “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paris,” and “Liza.” Brilliant as it is, the music shares prominence with the production’s spectacular beauty — dancing that includes the “American in Paris Ballet” and heart-stopping imagery. Wheeldon is clearly the artistic descendant of 20th century ballet greats, but he imbues his dances with narrative, sexuality, and a range of emotion all his own and sets a new standard for dance on Broadway.
Robert Fairchild as Jerry and Leanne Cope as Lise dance their roles sublimely, but also prove themselves accomplished actors and excellent singers. In the supporting roles, Max von Essen as Henri and Brandon Uranowitz as Adam, whose character is also the narrator, are terrific foils for Fairchild and deliver two of the year’s best supporting performances. Jill Paice is delicious as Milo Davenport, the rich American who is trying to buy social standing — and Jerry. The always-wonderful Veanne Cox has a great comic turn as Henri’s mother.
Bob Crowley’s design and lighting by Natasha Katz are perfect, and special notice must be paid to the best use of projections yet on Broadway, designed by 59 Productions. Technology has never had so much emotional power.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone not getting swept away by the sheer theatricality of this magnificent piece that is also a deeply human story. “An American in Paris” touches the heart in a manner very close to the divine.
I have seldom wanted to love a show as much as “Finding Neverland.” The exploration of how imagination takes form and, literally, flight is fertile territory, rich in Jungian themes of birth, renewal, and possibility. J.M. Barrie’s premise that Peter Pan could only stay young by forgetting what he learned sets up existential conflicts between the realities of life and the appeal of fantasy and between youth’s freedom and the consciousness maturity brings. Those tensions seem made for the theater.
It was probably naïve on my part to think that such themes could be smartly engaged in a big, crowd-pleasing musical, but James Graham’s book almost goes there. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t know if it wants to be an intimate story on the scale of the magnificent “Fun Home” or a great big Broadway show, and that is its undoing. There are pleasures to be had, and for the sake of commerce the show may be exactly where it needs to be. (It has a huge reported advanced sale and has just announced a tour.)
The story is that Barrie, suffering from writer’s block and living in what biographers say was an unconsummated marriage, finds freedom and fun in his relationship with the four young Llewelyn Davies boys and their mother, Sylvia. From them, he draws his inspiration for “Peter Pan.” Against all odds and the objections of his producer, Charles Frohman, and those who think Barrie’s relationship with the boys and Sylvia improper, it becomes a hit.
“Finding Neverland” quickly becomes a fairly formulaic musical with one predictable set piece after the next. The music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy are, unfortunately, not very tuneful, and the choreography by Mia Michaels has the athleticism and simplistic metaphor that work on “So You Think You Can Dance,” but are wrong here, absolutely killing the sense of period. The sets by Scott Pask, costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb, and lighting by Kenneth Posner are some of the evening’s highlights, with the sort of unforgettably brilliant effects people pay to see in a show.
Beyond its design, the show’s other big draw comes from the performances. Matthew Morrison as Barrie sounds great and manages to delve into some of his character’s more complex elements. Kelsey Grammer, as Frohman and later Captain Hook, is hilarious and larger than life. Laura Michelle Kelly as the doomed Sylvia — a slight cough early on prefigures consumption, as it always does — sings beautifully. Carolee Carmello as Syliva’s mother is, as usual, wonderful, as is Teal Wicks as Barrie’s wife. The kids are spunky and the ensemble is right out of central casting in terms of variety. They sing and dance with bountiful energy.
Like “Wicked” and “Phantom of the Opera,” “Finding Neverland” may ultimately prove critic-proof. At the performance I saw, people young and old were enthralled by the show and rapturous at the end. Many of them had clearly gone on the journey of imagination the creators intended. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that it’s pure joy that packs houses, however imperfectly delivered.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS | Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway at 47th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $47-$147 at ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000 | Two hrs., 30 mins., with intermission
FINDING NEVERLAND | Lunt Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St. | Tue.-Thu. at 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $72-$147 at ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000 | Two hrs., 40 mins., with intermission