Post-war moment relived in jazzy musical

Rhonda Dredge

Musical fever has hit Melbourne with Moulin Rouge still playing, Hamilton premiering, Girl from the North Country in the offing and An American in Paris performing its first matinee at the State Theatre in Southbank.

Three of the musicals are based on movies and An American in Paris features the well-known songs of the Gershwin bothers.

What sets this production from Broadway apart is the inclusion of the Australian Ballet for the first time in a musical.

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is a pioneer of integrating the two forms, not an easy task, according to experts. Broadway and ballet dancers don’t always mix well.

The star of the show is Lise Dassin, a talented dancer forced into a job at a perfume counter, played by Leanne Cope from the Royal Ballet in England who can sing as well!

Other principal parts are played by locals such as Sam Ward, a graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts, whose tall form is perfect for the starchy Henri Baurel, and Jonathon Hickey, a member of the band Chinatown Carpark, who plays the lyrical musician Adam Hochberg.

The show opens at the end of World War Two when occupied Paris is beginning to wake up, ringing a strong bell for lockdown Melburnians.

The streets are full of gangs. Nazi sympathisers are being shamed. American soldiers are being shipped out.

The smooth-talking Jerry Mulligan, played by Robbie Fairchild of the New York City Ballet, misses his train on purpose so he can pursue his calling as an artist. He wanders into a small Parisian bar where Adam is composing at the piano. Adam can’t rise above a dirge. Art is meant to be painful, he says.

The bar is owned by Henri and his family who played a double game during the occupation. Lise is their ward.

The romantic complications drive the show culminating in several exquisite Parisian functions when a parody of high culture with wan dancers flowing to “The eclipse of Uranus” is eventually thrown out by jazzy modernism.

The show steps back in time to a particular historical moment and nostalgia, particularly in the form of starry-eyed romantic youngsters and cynical elders, holds sway.

The break-out is inspiring, perhaps echoed in our own shutdown lives as we take a punt on a musical to lift us above a grey Melbourne day.

There are some great character actors, the name given in the olden days to those who weren’t young and beautiful. Anne Wood plays Madame Baurel, the mother of Henri, and she’s that typical kind of American high-bred dame prevalent in society movies of the ‘40s.

An American in Paris was screened in 1951 with Gene Kelly as the romantic lead and it could be called corny, but the delivery of this romantic tale is amusing, heart-warming and inspiring.

The old familiar tunes play alongside such amusing American colloquialisms as “prize pig” and “not everything is for sale.”

My favourite line by the clean-cut artistic genius who plays the hero and woos the heroine with daily romantic trysts by the Seine is “you deserve more than afternoons.”

Everyone is a dancer, artist, musician or heiress in this smooth American comedy of manners but that is its charm. Art has a way of lifting us above the doldrums.

The sets are dazzling, beginning as old-world renditions of Parisian street scenes and ending in the jazz era of bold colour and form.

An American in Paris, State Theatre, until April 23 •

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