An American in Paris

Allons enfants de la Patrie! France during and after WWII provides fertile soil for rich drama, music and art this year

What links London’s latest hit musical An American in Paris, a revival of Incident in Vichy – an Arthur Miller drama not seen in this country for 50 years – and the centenary of the young German artist Charlotte Salomon, who continues to enchant more than 70 years after she perished in the Holocaust?

The clue is in the titles of the theatre pieces. Arthur Miller's Incident in Vichy concerns the fate of 10 men detained in Vichy, France, at the height of World War II in 1942, when Vichy became notoriously synonymous with the French government of Marshal Pétain that collaborated with the Nazis. An American in Paris, freshly adapted from the much-loved Gershwin movie musical, is reimagined with a story set in the City of Light in 1945, in the immediate aftermath of the war. The heroine is a young Jewish ballerina safely hidden by Parisians, while her parents have disappeared in wartime Provence. And the young German artist Charlotte Salomon, escaping Nazi Germany to take refuge in the South of France, was herself arrested in Villefranche in September 1943 aged just 26 – within a month she had been murdered on arrival in Auschwitz.

Salomon was born 100 years ago this April and in the April edition of Jewish Renaissance, which will reach subscribers just before Passover, I explore the continuing allure of her life and work as expressed in the 765 autobiographical series of gouaches that make up her Life? Or Theatre?, in the company of the co-creators of a new play with music telling her story "in three dimensions".

I have just had the good fortune to marvel at the glorious evocation of the newly-liberated City of Light in American in Paris – a show that adds depth to the light-as-air story of the much-loved film musical without losing any of its charm and vitality, thanks to a fresh plot with Jewish protagonists at its heart. Find out more in my American in Paris review.

My most recent review is of an extraordinarily well-cast and tightly-directed revival of Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy. The production successfully ratchets up the tension of Miller’s 90-minute morality play examining the different responses and fates of those 10 men picked off the streets of Vichy by a Nazi regime intent on rounding up Jews for deportation. It continues at London's Finborough Theatre until Saturday 22 April.

By Judi Herman

Click here to read all of our theatre reviews.

Review: An American in Paris ★★★★★ – A glorious evocation of the City of Light illuminates the stage

A lone figure limps into the light on a bare stage. Wounded in action, GI Adam Hochberg, confides his life, loves, hopes and fears and takes the audience back to newly-liberated Paris, 1945. David Seadon Young’s sardonic, worldly-wise American Jew in Paris is the first surprise in a show that adds depth to the light-as-air story of the much-loved film – without losing any of its charm and vitality.

Director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and book writer Craig Lucas collaborated to develop the story – Hochberg is one of three young men who become comrades – the ’Three Musketeers’ – all sharing one beloved object, gifted ballerina Lise Dassin (equally gifted ballerina, Royal Ballet principal Leanne Cope, proving she can sing and act, with all the delicate vulnerability of the film’s Leslie Caron). She too is Jewish, surviving the war hidden by the cultured family of her second admirer Henri Baurel (Haydn Oakley, all Parisian charm), though she hides her personal tragedy: her parents are missing after the Holocaust. Aficionados of the film will guess the third admirer is the American of the title, ebullient demob-happy GI Jerry Mulligan – breath-taking triple threat Robert Fairchild doing rather more than making the Gene Kelly role his own.

The creative team build on the film’s glorious ballet and lush Gershwin brothers’ score, with daring extended dance sequences performed by this multi-talented 18-strong ensemble, peopling a hopeful Paris striving for normality after the traumas of occupation. Alongside the joyful expression of freedom, there’s a telling moment, the shaming of a woman accused of sleeping with the enemy, all without a word of dialogue. Lucas’s book is wonderfully witty, though, and his rounded characters are a gift to actors such as Jane Asher, who is superb as bossy matriarch Madam Baurel, and Zoë Rainey, a revelation as the irresistible force that is Milo Davenport, socialite arts patroness extraordinaire (based on real-life inspirational Jewish art collector Peggy Guggenheim).

The numbers are subtly staged to reveal plot and character. Take the complementary numbers, one in each act, featuring that trio of musketeers yearning after Lise. They get to sing first '‘S Wonderful' and then 'They Can’t Take That Away from Me' and for each the lyrics mean something different and personal. Just 15 versatile musicians realise Bill Elliott’s expansive orchestrations.

The performers inhabit the extraordinary evocation of Paris conjured by designer Bob Crowley’s 3D streets, buildings and landmarks (realised by 59 Productions Projection Design), the City of Light living up to its name thanks to lighting designer Natasha Katz’s palate of complementary glowing colour. Crowley dresses everyone with lovely period detail, especially the ensemble – gorgeous glamour for those essential Parisian showgirls and sophistication for Asher and Rainey. A ravishing, life-affirming joy.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Johan Persson

An American in Paris is currently booking until Monday 30 October. 7.30pm (Mon- Sat), 2pm (Sat, Wed). £17.50-£125. Dominion Theatre, W1T 7AQ. 0845 200 7982.

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