To live and die for dreaminess and glamour is the inherent promise of An American in Paris. That's evident in both Vincent Minnelli’s 1951 film starring Gene Kelly with a George Gershwin score, and choreographer and director Christopher Wheeldon’s hit 2014 Broadway adaption, currently playing at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre.
Yet that promise is compromised in the musical by anxiety, pain, and a dawning belief that the world that we yearn for, the people we fall madly in love with, might just drift out of reach. And it suggests that our fantasies might be no more than a nasty, taunting illusion to everything we hold dear.
And so the musical asks us to acknowledge that our lead -- the painter and American of the title Jerry Mulligan -- is not just navigating the trails and tribulations of love, but of the past war as well. The same is true of the supporting characters: Mulligan's friend and fellow American, pianist-composer Arthur Hochberg; local scion and wannabe cabaret star Henri Baurel, and the love of their lives, Lise Dassin, a dancer suffering from a mysterious past and many injustices.
However, unlike the supporting characters, Mulligan's anguish seems tacked-on, more character window-dressing than actual feeling. When he speaks of the ravages of war, you never believe that he knows what he's talking about, or that he's actually experiencing any pain. And pain, strangely enough, is the fuel this musical relies on.
Wheeldon and librettist Craig Lucas make an interesting narrative bet: just how much are we willing to pay for the sweetness of a dream? I would say a lot, but much of it depends on the nature of the dream and how it’s assembled. Coming from the world of ballet, Wheeldon places an inordinate amount of faith in dance to resolve the emotional conflicts that haunt these characters.
When Mulligan chases down Dassin at the department store where she works, it is his dancing -- not what he says or sings -- that proves irresistible. And it is dancing that transforms the stage into a colorful explosion of light and movement, a gigantic flower literally bursting open above the frenzy of human tumult beneath it. It’s the type of glorious surrealism that 1950s MGM musicals produced with ease, and the experience of seeing Wheeldon take that aesthetic from the sound stage to the live stage is a pleasure.
Our desire to see dreams come to life, to believe that anything might be possible, rests almost entirely with a realism of the spirit. If we believe in the characters, we're ready and willing to accept the wildest incongruities. But it's hard to believe in the dream at the center of An American in Paris when our hero, Mulligan, is just a set of gestures. McGee Maddox is a talented actor, dancer, and singer, but there's nothing for him to play. And in some sense, his talent keeps reminding us of what we're missing, the emptiness at the core of our hero.
When Maddox tries to infuse meaning into lines about how Mulligan wishes he could forget the war or how much art means to him, the actor is stymied by the perfunctory nature of the writing. We need a leading man. But what we get instead is a function of the plot, a pastiche of qualities rather than a real human being.
Mulligan is clearly not an artist. He has no qualities that suggest a suffering soldier, and in many ways this character barely seems American. He's just an idea. Now, I would say that this problem goes all the way back to the source material: the character's an odd defect in the movie too, even with Gene Kelly's star power. And in both cases, the failure is pure poison to the delicate fantasy before us.
What we're left with is Gershwin’s majestic music, which tempers its wild forays with a rhythmic force that suggests everything you hear is part of the same world. It's a fascinating rebuke to the bland soul at the heart of what should have been a marvelous adventure.
‘An American in Paris’ runs through Sunday, Oct. 8 at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.