‘An American in Paris’ Theater Review: How Much Angst Can a Movie Musical Handle?

There’s a lot of gay and Jewish anxiety in this new stage version, but not to worry. Everyone still finds the time to sing “Fidgety Feet” and “Who Cares?”

It was going to be a movie about two kept people who fall in love with each other. That was Alan Jay Lerner’s original concept for his “An American in Paris” screenplay. Naturally, the powers at MGM decided that one kept person was more than enough for their 1951 movie musical. Struggling painter Gene Kelly could be “supported” by art patron Nina Foch (impersonating Peggy Guggenheim), but it was just too much for Leslie Caron to be kept by her wealthy boyfriend too. Instead, Caron’s character Lise became a waif who’s indebted to the wealthy Henri Baurel for protecting her during World War II.

Whoever thought that today’s Broadway would turn out to be more conservative than 1950’s MGM? Last week, a revival of “Gigi” opened in which an old man no longer gets to sing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” for fear it would be perceived as an ode to pedophilia.  And now “An American in Paris,” which opened Sunday at the Palace Theatre, presents a far less opportunistic (and struggling) painter named Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild).

In Craig Lucas’s new book, Jerry still romances the art patron Milo Davenport (Jill Paice), but rather than dangling monetary support for sexual favors, she immediately lands him an assignment to design the sets and costumes for a new ballet. And voila! Once that assignment is secure, Jerry doesn’t really need the middle-age patroness, who looks to be pushing 30 in this stage version. In other words, he doesn’t have to break with Milo and her funds to prove his love for Lise (Leanne Cope).

Perhaps Lucas and director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon sensed they’d lost too much conflict, because they overload act two with exposition on Lise’s being Jewish, her family’s extermination in the holocaust, and the Baurel family’s involvement in the French resistance. (In the movie, Lise handles her own backstory in about two sentences.) Oh, and Henri Baurel (Max von Essen) is now gay, and so in addition to his loving jazz and wanting to be a stage performer, which his parents (Veanne Cox and Scott Willis) don’t like but then they do, you have to worry if there’ll be a big gay-disclosure scene.

There’s so much focus on Henri that, for a moment, it looks like he’ll end up with Jerry’s Jewish composer friend Adam (Brandon Uranowitz), who keeps telling everyone that loyalty and honor mean nothing in the face of true love. Really? Not that all this gay and Jewish angst prevents anyone from singing “Who Cares?,” “Fidgety Feet,” “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” etc.

The Jerry character is further shortchanged when Wheeldon turns the movie’s spectacular “American in Paris” ballet into an abstract ballet, as if designed by Mondrian, and as if Gershwin’s music didn’t make specific references to individual sights and sounds as experienced by an American in Paris.

Perhaps Wheeldon opted to go abstract for the finale because his storytelling in act one often makes you want to rewatch the movie to understand what’s going on. Actually, the most beautifully choreographed thing in the show’s first half is the way Wheeldon crisscrosses designer Bob Crowley’s mirrors and cityscapes, which undulate beautifully against the impressionistic projection by 59 Productions.

Wheeldon’s approach is sophisticated, especially his decision to cast classically trained ballet dancers for his leads, Fairchild and Cope, both making their Broadway debuts. They’re competent actors and singers, but when Fairchild dances he recalls the European tradition of classical ballet – unlike Gene Kelly, who recalls the all-American tradition of being a hoofer. Someone forgot to put the American in this “Paris.”