On a chilly Wednesday evening in February, I ventured out of the warmth of my room to the Oxford Playhouse for the opening night of An American in Paris. I must admit, it had been a long day working on my dissertation, and all I really wanted to do was go to sleep. I was slightly anxious that two hours in a warm, darkened room would send me right off, but as soon as the live band struck up, I was wide awake.
There were many stars to 00 Productions’ An American in Paris, but for me the star of the show would have to be Molly Jones in the role of Jerry. A woman playing Jerry, albeit not changing the character’s gender, was a welcome surprise. I do slightly wish they’d fully gone for a bisexual American in Paris, but at the very least, it was certainly queer-coded, as, of course, is the character of Henri (George Vyvyan). But beyond any question of queer-coding, Molly Jones was simply the perfect choice for Jerry; it was absolutely clear why she was cast. Flirty, witty, and charmingly irresistible, she almost made you wish you were being twirled around the banks of the Seine like Lise.
Speaking of Lise, Rachel Smyth as the musical’s leading lady was equally excellent casting. The chemistry between the two lovers was palpable, and Smyth’s ballet dancing teasingly twirling the musical onwards was beautiful to watch.
The chemistry between the two lovers was palpable
Jelani Munroe in the role of Milo Davenport was truly delightful, providing comic relief as well as a wonderfully deep, warm timbre of vocals to the musical’s soundtrack. In fact, every single singer in the production was incredible, something rare for an amateur musical to achieve.
The real challenge of this show is capturing the comedy and jollity and humour of the musical intertwined with that dark, messy shadow the Second World War still casts over Paris. Yet the actors managed this well – Cormac Diamond really grasped the darkly cynical worldview of Adam, a Jew who had survived the war but was left with, understandably, a tenacious impression of the ‘dark underbelly’ of life. Leading lovers aside, it is his recognition of the value of art that really encapsulates the idea behind the musical. “Life’s already dark,” he says in an epiphany moment during the second act. “If you’ve got the talent to make it brighter-” – you must. On a gloomy day in the fifth week of Hilary, the production certainly reflected this notion, bringing brightness to a rainy Oxford.
The real challenge of this show is capturing the comedy and jollity and humour of the musical intertwined with that dark, messy shadow the Second World War still casts over Paris.
Of course, the real star of the show would have to be George Gershwin’s soundtrack. Molly Jones was incredible, don’t get me wrong, but to oust Gershwin from his rightful throne would be quite a feat indeed. The whole essence of An American in Paris is the music, being originally a cinematic interpretation of Gershwin’s composition of the same name. His soundtrack was certainly done justice by the presence of a real live band conducted by Jake Sternberg, bouncing along jauntily, tensely rumbling and soaring into crescendo as and when the plot demanded it. If you go to see An American in Paris for only one reason, let it be this. It was telling that the most rapturous applause once the curtain fell was, by far, for the band.
His soundtrack was certainly done justice by the presence of a real live band conducted by Jake Sternberg, bouncing along jauntily, tensely rumbling and soaring into crescendo as and when the plot demanded it.
A real triple-threat production, An American in Paris would not be complete without innumerable sparkling dance numbers punctuating the whole show, given the story’s strong emphasis on ballet and jazz. The production’s choreographer (Cameron Tweed) did not disappoint on this front. The show involved choreography that was remarkably impressive for an amateur production, including several tap sequences and a particularly notable piece involving feather fans and glittery jackets as George Vyvyan’s powerful voice soared through ‘I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise’. And how could I forget the incredible lift performed by Rachel Smyth, a la Dirty Dancing? It was a wonder she wasn’t exhausted by the conclusion of her seemingly endless ballet sequence, in which her literal outward performance became entwined with her imagined pas de deux with Jerry.
The show involved choreography that was remarkably impressive for an amateur production…
A shoutout must go to Stazi Towers and Elise Leclair’s set design, splaying the whole production against the Parisian sky, which coloured and darkened as night and day, sunrise and sunset respectively required (a credit to lighting designer Sam Morley’s talent). The tip of the Eiffel Tower cast its watchful shadow over the stage, and enchantingly glittered as night fell. Three arched windows descended whenever an indoors scene needed to be indicated, charmingly Parisian and beautifully crafted. And, of course, a lamppost denoting the bank of the Seine provided a perfect prop for Molly Jones to spin herself around in the unyielding grasp of love, as one naturally must do when in love and in Paris. A truly magical set design.
The tip of the Eiffel Tower cast its watchful shadow over the stage, and enchantingly glittered as night fell.
Of course a few things went wrong, as they have a tendency to do in live theatre. The curtain failed to fall properly just before the interval, leaving the cast standing in position for far longer than must have been comfortable. To their credit, though, they handled the situation very spontaneously well. Any minor slip-up, of which there were certainly a few, was quickly covered and diverted from smoothly.
It was a night of true escapism, a welcome distraction from fifth week blues and looming dissertation deadlines.
It was a night of true escapism, a welcome distraction from fifth week blues and looming dissertation deadlines. By no means Broadway level, it still made a very strong impression for a student production. Director Ollie Khurshid must certainly be proud of what a brilliant performance he put together, engrossing his audience in the irresistibly smooth, jazzy melodies of Gershwin evoked so beautifully by the live band.
To sum up 00 Productions’ An American in Paris, in the words (well, mostly) of Ira Gershwin himself: s’wonderful, s’marvellous, and s’definitely worth the ticket price.
An American in Paris is showing at the Oxford Playhouse from 15th to 18th February. Tickets can be found here.
Image Credit: Emily Sinclair
Image Description: George Vyvyan as Henri stands in the middle of eight dancers holding large white feather fans around him in a circular formation. In the background you can see the live band and the tip of the Eiffel Tower.