NEW YORK — A wholly contagious joy of motion is packed into every kick, lift, tap and leap of “An American in Paris,” director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s suavely mounted, dance-driven new stage version of the 1951 Oscar-winning movie musical that had its official opening Sunday night at the Palace Theatre.
The exhilaration is especially catching when it’s being spread by the evening’s leading man, Robert Fairchild, a star of the New York City Ballet who here impressively redirects his wattage to Broadway. His breakout performance suggests that his temporary shift in focus could, for musical-theater fans, be advantageously made permanent.
Fairchild’s segue feels like one of the more felicitous in the long history of classical ballet dancers re-creating their elegant lines on Broadway. It’s the most magnetic bridging of these worlds in years, in fact. A combination of Gene Kelly’s earthy athleticism and Hugh Jackman’s self-assured showmanship comes through in Fairchild’s steps and bearing. His voice, too, is an engaging instrument for the score of Gershwin standards and novelty numbers, such as “ ’S Wonderful,” “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” and “Fidgety Feet.”
Around him, Wheeldon and set and costume designer Bob Crowley build a postwar Paris to swoon for, one in which it’s easy to imagine a G.I.-turned-artist like Fairchild’s Jerry Mulligan falling in love with both the city and Lise Dassin (the lovely Leanne Cope), a budding ballet dancer herself. Cosmopolitan Paris as a refuge for artists of all stripes is what Crowley keys on in his gorgeous designs: Portions of the scenery materialize, as if from a sketch pad, and in one dazzling effect, they metamorphose into a panoramic watercolor of the city.
The movie musical on which the show is based, which starred Kelly and Leslie Caron and was directed by Vincente Minnelli, remains a fairly schematic framework for the stage version, with some useful plot embellishments by its adapter, playwright Craig Lucas. (Caron and Minnelli, coincidentally, collaborated on “Gigi,” another Academy Award-winning movie musical of the ’50s set in Paris that opened last week on Broadway in a new stage adaptation.) But because dance is the show’s primary language — the piece concludes with a stunning 15-minute ballet sequence, as enthrallingly realized as many of the short works George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins created for the New York City Ballet — some aspects of character feel a bit under-served.
Wheeldon, an accomplished ballet choreographer, proves, unsurprisingly, to be a better director of dancers who act than actors who dance. While big performances are coaxed out of Fairchild and Cope, a veteran of Britain’s Royal Ballet, the portrayals by some of the fine musical-theater actors in the company feel dwarfed by the production’s attention-hogging physical elements. This is especially true of Jill Paice, in the role of Milo Davenport, an American socialite who takes a shine to Jerry. Her scenes with Fairchild as well as her number “Shall We Dance,” late in the first act, would benefit from a bit more zing to more thoroughly conduct the evening’s electricity.
As Jerry’s rivals for Lise, Max von Essen and Brandon Uranowitz — the latter the galvanizing center of Studio Theatre’s revival of “Torch Song Trilogy” a couple of years back — are both accorded pleasurable musical moments: Uranowitz is showcased in a smooth treatment of “But Not for Me,” and von Essen is given a bravura turn in a thrilling second-act rendition of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.”
The successes of this “American in Paris” are built on such individual moments. As “Stairway to Paradise” demonstrates, the stories told in the space of one song often unfold more satisfyingly than does the plot as a whole. “Stairway” takes place in a Paris club where von Essen’s Henri Baurel, exploring a clandestine dream of becoming a cabaret singer, nervously stumbles through the opening stanzas of the song; soon enough, he’s fantasized himself into a full production number, on a glittery set redolent of the New York City he aspires to conquer.
Comparable arcs add bold new flavors to “I Got Rhythm,” in which Uranowitz’s Adam Hochberg, a serious composer, hears his solemn compositions re-engineered as dance music, and “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck,” by which Jerry woos Lise in the perfume aisles of the Galeries Lafayette department store.
Wheeldon and company’s larger achievement is to confer on “An American in Paris” a contemporary freshness, to convey to Broadway audiences how the rigor of classical dance can be adapted to the musical form in fuller and ever more invigorating ways. The conjoining of these worlds on Broadway makes for one very fortunate collision.
Music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, book by Craig Lucas. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. Sets and costumes, Bob Crowley; lighting, Natasha Katz; music supervision, Rob Fisher; sound, Jon Weston. With Veanne Cox, Scott Willis. About 2½ hours. $55-$240. At the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, New York. Visit ticketmaster.com or call 877-250-2929.