An American in Paris: A Review

by Jerric Chong and Evie Sharp

Paris has just been liberated from its Nazi occupiers. Legions of American veterans begin departing on their way home across the Atlantic. But not so for youthful Jerry Mulligan, an artistic dilettante smitten with a young ballerina he encounters on the Parisian streets. He soon meets the composer and fellow GI Adam Hochberg and the industrialist scion Henri Baurel. Adam works as a répétiteur for a ballet class, where he becomes infatuated with one talented auditionee, while Henri attempts to build up the confidence to propose (in writing!) to a mysterious girlfriend. Perhaps rather unsurprisingly for a musical set in the proverbial ‘city of love’, the romantic interests of all three turn out to be the same woman, Lise Dassin. Caught in a sticky amorous dilemma, she is torn between loving out of duty and out of passion.

So begins An American in Paris, inspired by the early-20th-century music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin, with the book by Craig Lucas adapting Alan Jay Lerner’s 1951 Oscar-winning film of the same name. Replete with complex musical ideas and intricate choreography, it is undoubtedly challenging to stage effectively but, building on past successes including Sweeney Todd, 00Productions rose to the occasion and presented an ambitious project that definitively showcased the prodigious talent of Oxford students in pulling off such a technical feat with immense flair and inventiveness. Produced by Aron West and directed by Ollie Khurshid, the musical was characterised by vibrant and energetic performances throughout the two-hour-long spectacle, choreographed to perfection and providing some fabulous and colourful visuals for the audience.

While bubbling with much humour and whimsy, An American in Paris deals also with the aftermath of World War II in Paris and its consequences on the city’s inhabitants. The cast were exemplary in conveying these nuances through their performances, with due attention paid to interpersonal relationships as romances are broken and rekindled. Notably, the male character of Jerry was played by Molly Jones – while an unconventional casting choice, she acted excellently: charmingly courting Lise and fraternising with Adam and Henri in a way that just seemed perfectly natural. Cormac Diamond was strikingly prominent with a strident baritone voice and commanding presence, all while portraying his character’s limp and pessimistic outlook with great conviction. Jelani Munroe as the self-willed philanthropist Milo Davenport (another cross-gender role) brought with him a wide vocal range, stretching up to an impressive falsetto, that lent itself tellingly to moments both coy and dramatic. Moreover, for a musical of solely American and French characters, the cast’s accents came across persuasively, barring Henri’s (perhaps slightly hackneyed?) occasional malapropisms à la Officer Crabtree, but in any case limited to the provision of comic relief.

The production’s choreography, directed by Cameron Tweed, was a delight to behold, manifesting itself in the form of tap dances and ballet sequences scattered throughout, and particularly in the elaborate number ‘Stairway to Paradise’, complete with feathered props and sequined costumes. Furthermore, the ensemble deserves much credit for their remarkable and precise execution of the choreography, which must have certainly been a novel experience for many of them to perform. While comparatively minimalist, the set design – involving a Parisian skyline silhouetted and illumined against a tastefully polychromatic sky – subtly and deftly established the mood for each scene. The three window grilles, judiciously lowered to hint at the Baurels’ lavish residence in key scenes, also played a crucial narrative role during Jerry and Lise’s confrontation in Act II.

All this was certainly (’s)wonderful, but the true star of the production was indubitably the music, memorably performed live on stage by an absolutely exceptional orchestra conducted by Jake Sternberg. Their sound quality and professionalism were outstanding and far surpassed expectations, and they supplied a vivacious rhythmic backdrop to the cast that assuredly did all justice to Gershwin’s boisterous music. This department was where Orielenses shone through with their artistic merit: Titas Radzevicius on accordion (who accompanied the very first and last scenes), Imogen Albert on reed, Tom Wild on trumpet, and (most significantly) Alessandro MacKinnon-Botti on keys, who also served as an assistant musical director. Oriel supporters in the audience were so in awe that they threw roses on stage during the standing ovation.

All in all, this musical was the perfect remedy to fifth-week blues, and provided the heart-warming, feel-good content that we all needed.

An American in Paris ran from Wednesday 15 February to Saturday 18 February at the Oxford Playhouse.

The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford, written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff. New issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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