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First Nighter: Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon Sparks the Gershwins' 'An American in Paris'

04/12/2015 09:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2015

Christopher Wheeldon's choreography for An American in Paris, at the Palace, is so spectacular that you have to forgive anything else wrong with the production--and believe you me, there's plenty to forgive--and I mean plenty.

But before I get to that, the first thing most George Gershwin lovers will want to know is whether the "American in Paris" ballet succeeds. Like gangbusters. Featuring New York City Ballet soloist Robert Fairchild--playing the Army veteran/aspiring artist Jerry Mulligan--and the Royal Ballet's Leanne Cope--as the aspiring ballerina Lise Dassin--in a thrilling pas de deux that you wish could go on forever, it's one of the highest lights of a 2014-2015 season notable for more and better dancing than has been seen for years.

From his opening gambit, Wheeldon, who also directs, signals he's intent on this being perceived as ballet on Broadway--with a bow to George Balanchine and his "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet in On Your Toes. It's a depiction of Paris directly after the 1945 liberation. Using a stage full of accomplished dancers, through whom Fairchild and Cope move as they initially see each other, he depicts not only the joy of Parisians free at last from the Occupation but the somber side, incorporating citizens pulling down Nazi banners and hounding out collaborators. He does it to excerpts from Gershwin's magnificent "Concerto in F."

Between that and the "American in Paris" ballet, he's generous with a glittering Folies Bérgere routine, an amusingly nervous go at the George and Ira Gershwin "Fidgety Feet" (paired with of a send-up of Balanchine's "Apollo") and any number of commanding smaller turns for Fairchild, Cope and other cast members who can dance a little or a lot. Trained as a classical dancer, Wheeldon has developed that training into a intricately robust personal style and flaunts it here to tremendous effect.

As I say, you see this An American in Paris for the dancing. You don't see it for Craig Lucas's libretto. The program notes in tiny type that, as most musical lovers will already know, it's "Inspired by the Motion Picture." That's the 1951 Oscar-winning best picture for which Alan Jay Lerner supplied the slight but appealing storyline.

To the extent that Lerner imagined three pals--two expat American men, a Frenchman, an American heiress looking to back an artist, and a young and nubile French woman, Lucas has hewed to Lerner. Otherwise, he's tossed aside almost everything else to do what he so often does in his plays: Wax pretentious while believing he's being deep substantive. He actually mentions something about examining "the ashes of war."

His revision takes place in a darker post-World War II Paris, where the Jewish Lise lives under the care of a family called Baurel (Veanne Cox, Scott Willis, Max von Essen) who've sheltered her during the war. In gratitude for them and their part in the Resistance, she feels obligated to marry son Henri (von Essen). And Lucas has made Lise's choice between Jerry and Henri even more complicated by having Jewish composer Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz) fall for her as well. As his gift of love, he's writing the "American in Paris" ballet score for her.

No real need to outline other plot points--like Henri's possibly being homosexual as well as his aspiring to show business behind his strait-laced parents' backs. What's necessary to know is that Lucas sometimes stresses and sometimes strays from his vision without much logic before bringing the true loving couple together.

And what kind of artist is Jerry? Is he good? Lucas never quite answers that question. The only indication is the set he's tapped to conjure for the "American in Paris" ballet. He comes up with Russian constructivism art backdrops. Huh? Why in 1945 would an American be cribbing from 1920s art trends? Just a sec. Perhaps the two canvases hanging in the living room of patroness Milo Davenport (Jill Paice) are his. Meant to be abstract, the one at stage right looks like a distorted Little Lulu.

Anyway, forget what I said about no logic at work. There is: It's incorporating as many George and Ira Gershwin songs in the two and a half hours (with intermission) as possible. Don't get me wrong. It's not a hardship for anyone holding on to the George and Ira Gershwin canon as part of the golden age of American popular songwriting.

The problem is with how the songs are employed: too often willy-nilly. They're shoved in, stuffed in, elbowed in, shoehorned in, gerrymandered in. And they come from everywhere--not just from the 1951 flick. Yes, it's nice enough to hear "Liza." But it's delivered only because Jerry decides Liza is a better name for Lise? Yes, it's nice to hear "Fidgety Feet," but why is it there? What has it to do with anything? Why is infatuated Milo luring Jerry with "Shall We Dance?" from the 1937 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rodgers romantic musical comedy? Among the many An American in Paris producers is the Lenore S. Gershwin 1987 Trust. What's motivating those operating the Trust? Is it only greed?

Other wild and crazy things are forced on the songs, too, changes that certainly wouldn't make the careful, conversational Ira Gershwin smile broadly. When Jerry, Adam and Henri each sing "S'wonderful" as a trio, they don't warble the lyric "You should care for me," they sing "She should care for me." Not only does the pronoun switch compromise the lyric's personal declaration of love, but it alters a song that would be more effective in these dramatic circumstances with the correct lyric. Incidentally, Todd Ellison's conducting is fine, but it can't be denied that the sound of the "American in Paris" ballet is disappointingly thin.

There's nothing wrong with the cast. The brashly sexy Fairchild and the quietly sexy Cope dance with infinite grace and sing like larks. Von Essen, Uranowitz, Cox, Paice and Willis are appealing presences and look soigné in Bob Crowley's costumes, within Crowley's gliding sets and before the many 59Productions projections. There's no faulting Natasha Katz's lighting or Jon Weston's sound, either.

A final thought: For the second time in a week, a property with which the late Alan Jay Lerner is closely associated has been mishandled on Broadway. (The other is Gigi.) Lerner was devoted to the arts--to theater and film--and was widely known to be fastidious about his passion. Now, producers assuming the names Gigi and An American in Paris remain commercial have traded on the titles with sheer disregard for how their librettist went about his work. What a shame.