Today’s Broadway is at its best presenting blockbuster spectacles like Wolf Hall and An American in Paris.
An American in Paris, a new musical based on the 1951 film, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. Book by Craig Lucas. Sets and costumes by Bob Crowley. Lighting by Natasha Katz,.Production design by 59 Productions. At the Palace Theater, New York
The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Wolf Hall, Part One (“Wolf Hall”) and Two (“Bring Up The Bodies”), based on the historical novels by Hilary Mantel. Adapted for the stage by Mike Poulton. Directed by Jeremy Herrin. Sets and costumes designed by Christopher Oram. At the Winter Garden, New York.
By Iris Fanger
What could be better than spring time in New York, with pleasant weather and the hottest tickets in town, carefully ordered months in advance? Last weekend included two front-row mezzanine seats for An American in Paris, which recently received a love letter of a review from the New York Times, and a full day of watching the theatrical adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s version of the Thomas Cromwell-Henry VIII-Cardinal Wolsey story, first related in her compulsively readable two volumes of historical fiction (both winners of the distinguished Booker Prize). The BBC television series Wolf Hall is running Sunday nights this spring on Masterpiece Theater-PBS. The theatrical version is currently in residence at the Winter Garden, courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company of London. To watch the story unfold over a matinee and evening on the same day was to appreciate the performances by a troupe of well-spoken actors who grow and deepen in their characterizations over the passage of years (and hours in real time).
An American in Paris
Christopher Wheeldon, one of the most sought-after ballet choreographers in the world, both directed and choreographed An American in Paris, based on the 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. An assured storyteller, Wheeldon conceived the stage musical as a full-length ballet, interspersing the dialogue and songs throughout. The show moves effortlessly along, and not only because of the splendid choreography for its two stars: Robert Fairchild, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, and the succulent Leanne Cope, of the Royal Ballet of England. The scene changes are performed as perky dance phrases by the members of the ensemble. Sketches of Parisian scenes are projected on the back wall — they pop like champagne bubbles in time to the rhythms of the music. In addition to the celebrated George and Ira Gershwin songs used in the film, some extras tunes are added, including the seldom-heard novelty “Fidgety Feet.”
Despite the emphasis on casting performers who could move, Wheeldon did not neglect the stage smarts of the actor-singers who surround Jerry, the American soldier-artist who remains in Paris after the other Americans ship back home, and Lise, the waif who was hidden during the war by a wealthy family. Outside of the central love story, the musical turns into a buddy show made up of Brandon Uranowitz as the pensive, witty composer Adam (the Oscar Levant role in the film) and Max von Essen as Henri, the son of the family that cared for Lise. After they befriend Jerry, the show settles into a 20th century version of The Three Musketeers. Each of the guys has his own big moment: Uranowitz delivers “But Not For Me” in a speak-song manner whose quiet pull on the heart-strings stops the proceedings, and von Essen is part of a mock “boffo” production number in “I’ll Build A Stairway to Paradise,” a satiric throw-back to the Ziegfeld tradition. Jill Paice as the wealthy blonde with a yen for Jerry and Veanne Cox as Henri’s stern, frightened mother not only do well in their roles, but break into dance on cue.
Fairchild is a fair match for Gene Kelly, and that’s quite a compliment. He’s an agile hunk, bopping through the jazz moves no less assuredly than gliding on top of the elegant ballet phrases, while Cope, with her Caron-gamine haircut, is simply a joy to watch. They have singing and acting chops to be sure, but it’s their dancing together that completes the show’s romantic illusion, particularly in the final pas de deux during the “An American in Paris” number. The 14-minute ballet is set on the red velvet curtained stage of the Palais Garnier rather than among the streets of the Parisian neighborhoods, a missed opportunity given the iconic images of the beloved city viewed in the film.
To watch the Royal Shakespeare Company—23 strong—enact a sumptuous stage recreation of the Hilary Mantel narratives to Broadway is to be reminded of the sweep of English history that has been mined by dramatists since the 16th century, when Shakespeare’s plays were first staged. To be sure, this is the past told though one person’s viewpoint. Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is sympathetic, her Anne Boleyn comes off a a power-hungry wench whose love of authority leads her to disregard the perils of life at court, and her Henry VIII is a sometimes-foolish man in love. So be it. The dramatization by Mike Poulton, with Mantel sitting in on rehearsals (and in the audience at this past Sunday’s performances) and direction by Jeremy Herrin is a thrilling look back at what the politics might have been like in the hot-house atmosphere of the Tudor court.
A 21st century audience is blessed with hindsight to appreciate the irony of the events: a mousey Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead—perfectly cast) claiming to be a nobody in Part I, the rise of Cromwell (Ben Miles, a cipher but clear-headed in his intentions) from an abused child of a blacksmith to the King’s right-hand man, the downfall of the mercurial Cardinal Wolsey (Paul Jesson) who after his death will become a ghost-advisor to Cromwell, and the obsessiveness of the zealot, Thomas More (John Ramm). Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII is modeled after the Hans Holbein portrait. (The production’s stained glass window-colored costumes and its high-ceilinged, bare set are by Christopher Oram; the exquisite lighting was designed by Paule Constable and David Plater). Parker projects the dangerous personality of a man who believes in his divine right to the throne despite the weakness of his family’s claim. This Henry behaves like a human being, but one who is used to getting his way. No matter to him, other than a twinge of regret, that he requires the betrayal (and beheading) of old friends and lovers. Watching the follies of the willful Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) in her rise to queen suggests the inevitability of her downfall.
The play begins with the thrilling image of the entire company, all in half-masks, pouring onto a darkened stage to perform an elaborate dance. The formal patterns require the men to continually change partners, a metaphor for the ever-shifting political alliances in the ever-exploitative atmosphere of the Henry VIII’s court. Of course, there are no surprises when you reach the end of Part II: Anne Boleyn-beheaded; Jane Seymour wed to the King within a week; Cromwell’s star continues to rise although he has only four more years to live. Still, the two dramas succeed in keeping the audience breathless as each new and bloody event unfolds. Today’s Broadway is at its best presenting blockbuster spectacles like Wolf Hall and An American in Paris. There is not much subtlety, but the productions are filled with oversized human endeavors and production values to match.
Iris Fanger is a theater and dance critic based in Boston. She has written reviews and feature articles for the Boston Herald, Boston Phoenix, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, and Patriot Ledger as well as for Dance Magazine and Dancing Times (London).
Former director of the Harvard Summer Dance Center, 1977-1995, she has taught at Lesley Graduate School and Tufts University, as well as Harvard and M.I.T. She received the 2005 Dance Champion Award from the Boston Dance Alliance and in 2008, the Outstanding Career Achievement Award from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts. She lectures widely on dance and theater history.