An American in Paris (the movie and the play)

If you haven’t indulged in any format of this lovely work, let me warn you: You’re going to be conflicted.

An American in Paris is a lovely piece of art, any way you consume it, but as a female in the year 2016, I couldn’t help but cringe. (And I’m the type of person who lets anachronisms go, because it’s not like they knew any better when they were making the movies, sheesh!)

The cringing mostly happened whilst watching the movie, which I did in preparation for seeing the play. The movie will make you fall in love with Gene Kelly, no matter your gender or sexual preference. He’s deliciously charming and talented and graceful. Watching him perform throughout the movie, I felt exactly like the woman in the background of this screenshot, which is to say, delirious because my smile was too big. (Here’s the full scene, by the way.)

cafe

Anyway. If you think about Gene Kelly and his character, aspiring artist Jerry Mulligan, too much, that’s when things start to get unsettling. See, Kelly was around 40 when he played Mulligan, and the girl he was going after was … let’s say too young. Lise (Leslie Caron) is beautiful and intriguing and doe-eyed and all that, but the age gap is too great to be sweet. And Mulligan, for all his attempted sweetness, is also pretty damn pushy as he’s courting her. I didn’t feel that Jerry and Lise were in love, because I never really saw them together in a way that made me think so. The entire time they were living in a fantasy — which, yes, is the point of the movie — but their love seemed based on nothing at all. Superficially, though, they seem to have a nice time together.

Meanwhile, the story gets tragic for other characters. Jerry straight-up steals Lise from his friend, Henri (Georges Guetary), who is engaged to her. And he jilts Patricia Clarkson lookalike Milo (Nina Foch), his sugar mama, essentially. And then there’s ol’ Adam (Oscar Levant), because everyone needs a bitter musician friend to boost their ego. Adam was my favorite part of the movie — besides the incredible dancing, the Gershwin tunes and the insane black-and-white party they all attended — because he seemed to be the only one with any clarity and logic to his thinking.

The play clears up a lot of the movie’s ambiguity, though Jerry and Lise’s relationship still seems pretty tenuous. In the Broadway production I saw — which was lovely and mesmerizing in its own way — all three men are after Lise, and we meet Henri’s parents as a way of gaining more insight into her ingenue background. She’s an aspiring dancer in the play, too, and a confirmed Jew who’s forever indebted to Henri’s family for getting her out of a bad spot. She’s got actual loyalty to deal with, rather than an overwhelming sense of proto-MPDG, which seems to be her sole motivation in the movie. Her dilemma of which man to choose — Jerry or Henri, because even though Adam is given a shot, he never really had one in the first place — seems grounded in reality.

So here’s what I’ll say. Both are worth taking in, at the very least for the divine spectacle of choreography to Gershwin soundtrack. You know all these songs, but you may not have known that they were from this movie. They’re timeless, even if the production itself is starting to show its age.

Les Miserables

Disclaimer, y’all: Prior to seeing this movie, I had never seen Les Miserables performed on stage or read Les Miserables on paper. I knew that the song “I Dreamed A Dream” was a big deal, but I wasn’t positive it was from this thing. “On My Own” and “Master of the House,” I had heard, but had no clue they were from this thing. Hell, I still don’t even know how to pronounce “miserables.” I know there’s an accent on there, but I don’t feel like typing it. In short, I am a novice. I make no apologies for this. Please accept it.

… I loved it. I cried multiple times, mostly when Anne Hathaway hit a grand slam with her rendition of The Song That Ruined Susan Boyle’s Life, but also many other times. The whole production was lovely and pretty and theatrical and romantic, and I loved it. I’m not claiming it was perfect, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but my first thought upon leaving the theater was one of complete joy.

I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. I didn’t expect to be swept up by the movie magic and painting-like coloration of each frame and overabundance of Theater Acting as much as I did. But I let it happen, because that’s what you’re supposed to do during musicals. More than most art forms, musicals force their audiences to suspend their disbelief. No one breaks out in song in real life–or in the case of Les Mis, sings dialogue in-between songs–and I dare say that no one experiences tragedy or elation or any emotion on such an expressive, melodic level, but that’s the point. The songs are all so logged with emotion, the accompanying orchestra (again, suspending that disbelief!) swells at just the right time, the plot lines are all so simply and elegantly constructed that it’s impossible not to dive right in. Whereas regular movies develop character and complicate story through wit, timing, and editing, musicals do it purely through song. We don’t need to know any more about any of the characters than the words they sing to us and the expressions we see in the many close-ups of their emotive faces.

And oh, did they sing. The aforementioned Catwoman did some work. I’m not sure if she deserves the Oscar, per se, because she wasn’t actually in the movie for long, but her Fantine is as tragic as they come. Amanda Seyfried as Ol’ Cosette paled in comparison to Isabelle Allen, the real Cosette and the face of the ad campaign, but she still carried a decent tune. I found Seyfried’s suitor, Eddie Redmayne (Marius, duh), so charming that I actually felt bad I didn’t know who he was already. Turns out he’s been in a lot of stuff, and I’m dumb. The rest of his revolutionary cohorts, among them Aaron Tveit, were really impressive, too. Each had such a strong voice that it was hard to know where to focus as they sang “Red and Black,” my favorite number of the film. I also think Samantha Barks will get overshadowed by Hathaway, which is slightly unfortunate because Barks’ Eponine was understated and just as tragic. (Sidebar: Barks and Mila Kunis must play sisters in a future film. You’re welcome, Hollywood.)

Hugh Jackman was born to play Jean Valjean. I mean, seriously. It’s an odd and varied role, one that requires a lot of physicality and brutishness while also exuding a gentle, father-figure-like quality. Jackman has all of this, convincingly, as well as a magnetic stage presence. He seems like a jolly guy in general, but he was able to drop that when he needed to Make Shit Real. And even more props to him for facing Russell Crowe so many times. Because if I were as skilled in musical theater as Jackman, I wouldn’t have been able to deal with Crowe being cast as Javert. He looked like an intimidating fellow, sure, but the minute he opened his mouth to sing (and he had a lot of singing to do), I couldn’t take him seriously anymore. It’s fine that Crowe is not a great singer. It just means that he shouldn’t be cast in a damn singing role. I don’t care if he’s one of the greatest dramatic actors living today; you don’t see Jason Bateman being cast in musical comedies, either. I wish Javert had been played by someone equally formidable and sonically booming. John Travolta? Martin Short? For shit’s sake, I don’t know. Just someone else. Anyway, back to the praise. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter! I was not expecting those two to appear, but the movie was even better for their three-named presences. They’ve both got larger-than-life personalities and yet, even though I think they held back a little in their roles as M & M Thenardier, they still gave the entire cast a comedic backbone. I hope they work together again.

I so wish I had seen this play, in any form, in high school. I admit I always found it difficult to get into the French Revolution, to have the desire to investigate the why behind all the 5 H’s I was learning for whatever exam I had coming up next. Seeing this would have sparked that desire, for sure, even if the details of the story in Les Mis are undeniably vague. It would have attached characters, emotions, images of suffering, some sort of litmus test for me, a person who at the time had never been overseas, much less delved into European History with any sort of fervor. I’m glad I saw it now, and I hope to see it again on stage. Maybe Patti LuPone is still game to play Fantine…

The Fantasticks, 7.7.10

Well, with the exception of the weird surrealist post-apocalyptic tacked-on intro, I thoroughly enjoyed this play. The story was cute, the dialogue was witty, and the performers were talentedโ€”there’s not much more you could want out of a play. It’s an age-old tale, both literally and literally. I mean that in the sense that the story is a twist on forbidden love, as are many plays; and that the play itself was written many years ago. Bet you thought that was a typo.

Anyway, I was most impressed by the girl who played Luisaโ€”Sepideh Moafi. It’s hard to take your eyes off of her, because she’s talented, beautiful, charismatic, and she’s got a soaring voice that (no offense to this company) doesn’t really belong in a tiny theater. But that’s kind of the thing about the SF Playhouse. It’s dumpy, but inside its walls are some very talented people who can do a lot with a small stage and a single set. I recognized three players, I believe (Norman Munoz, Yusef Lambert, and Louis Parnell) from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, the first play I saw at this venue, so obviously it’s a great experience for the actors, too, otherwise they wouldn’t return. But I’m just saying. Sepideh, you can do better, and you will.

The other standout, as far as I’m concerned, was Ray Reinhardt as Henry, the Shakespeare-spouting old fogey. Hilarious. See him to believe him.

The only thing that was weird, then, was the thing I mentioned before. The interpretive introduction that director Bill English tacked on for some reason that I still can’t figure out. Initially, the idea of a play-within-a-play made sense! Everyone was mute, but given life when they performed this play. But this idea was never resolved at the end. I thought the people in the play would go back to leading their dreary lives, waiting for the next opportunity to perform the happy story to another group of people. From that standpoint, the post-apocalyptic context and setting would have made sense. Instead, it just seemed like a hurried afterthought, and a way to make the costumes fit in. I could have done without it.