(Contains Spoilers)

In musical theatre, a genre not exactly renowned for its subtlety, the city of Paris is shorthand for almost limitless romantic potentiality. Consider for a moment the staggering number of musical love stories set beside the Seine: The Phantom of the Opera, Moulin Rouge, Gigi, (arguably) Les Misérables, and, of course, An American in Paris.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Jerry Mulligan (Molly Jones), a former GI and aspiring painter, finds himself adrift and dreaming in Paris. As he threads his way through the bruised city, a girl flashes past, a girl called Lise (Rachel Smyth). Deciding in that visionary moment to remain in France, Jerry rips to pieces his train ticket / army discharge papers (a moment enjoyably blocked as an homage to Valjean tearing his yellow passport). 

Whilst searching for lodgings, Jerry encounters fellow American Adam Hochberg (Cormac Diamond), a jaded composer (and infrequent narrator) left with a limp by his own military service – giving the only visible war wound to the embittered character is, by the way, one of the less on the nose bits of writing. Joined by Henri Baurel (George Vyvyan), the scion of a wealthy French family with a passion for cabaret performance, the group bond over their dreams of artistic accomplishment. 

Owing to the orchestrations of the wealthy and charismatic American philanthropist, Milo Davenport (Jelani Munroe), Adam is tasked with composing a ballet for a newly discovered dancing star, and Jerry with doing the designs. And yes, you guessed it, the star is Lise. Both men fall in love with her, but she is involved with (and then engaged to) Henri. 

After much allusion to debts and duties, it is ultimately revealed that Lise Dassin, a Jew, was sheltered by the Baurels during the Nazi occupation. She credits the family with her life and is thus willing to marry Henri. The complexity, however, is that Lise has herself fallen, only for Jerry, an impulsive whirlwind in a traumatised city. 

Circumstances presenting apparently implacable obstacles in the way of true love: pure musical theatre, no? Thankfully, and unsurprisingly (is this not a musical?), these obstacles turn out more tractable than at first glance. Henri hides his moonlighting as a singer from his parents who, upon discovery, are immediately fine with it. Henri also learns that love must be an expression of liberty not obligation, which finally frees Lise to discover the same. The narrative therefore glides fairly smoothly along to all-round happy endings.

It is easy to be arch about the plotting of An American in Paris. It is also easy to be arch about the dialogue – lines akin to “life is not like your American movies” are not infrequent occurrences. In many ways, An American in Paris was the most shamelessly theatrical piece of musical theatre I have ever seen; the very Platonic ideal of the musical. And it was fantastic. 

In conversation with the show’s director, Ollie Khurshid, at Saturday’s sitzprobe, he told me that An American in Paris would be a “spectacle”. Folks, the advertising was not false. 

When the curtain rose for “Concerto in F”, it revealed a 20 piece orchestra arrayed onstage beneath a Parisian skyline, brass section shimmering in the lights. The sound – under musical director Jake Sternberg – was glorious, of an expansiveness, quality, and scale mostly alien to my experience of student theatre. Moreover, the choice to make the orchestra an immanent presence, in addition to filling some of the cavernous space that is the Playhouse stage, added to the texture of every scene, and reminded us that in a show with such a score, the musicians are performers every bit as much as the cast. 

Speaking of performers, the ensemble was consistently strong throughout a gruelling two-plus hours of singing and dancing (choreographed brilliantly by Cam Tweed), and the principals were uniformly excellent. Elise Busset brought a notable elegance to the otherwise plot-serving part of Madame Baurel. And Jelani Munroe was charmingly feline as the worldly Milo Davenport; I am very grateful for his opt-up at the end of “Shall We Dance?”. 

George Vyvyan’s comic delivery was impeccable, especially in mistranslation (i.e. “you are trying to prick me!”). His Henri was nonetheless rounded, and all those other moments of sincerity and sensitivity were fully mined. Vyvyan also gave Henri his deserved star turn with the dreamlike, Chorus Line-esque “Stairway to Paradise” (worth the price of admission alone). 

As Adam, Cormac Diamond was poised, controlled, and confident, and his singing was whisky-smooth. Adam’s arc is in many ways the show’s most important; as the de facto emcee, his progression from seeing Art as a reflection of the world’s abundant misery to seeing it as the oasis within that misery, constituted An American in Paris’s meta-argument for its own existence. 

Rounding out the gents, Molly Jones was a roguish Jerry Mulligan, and pitched herself perfectly as the ‘romantic’ in songs like “Liza” and “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck”. In the scenes spent wooing Lise, Jones had all the charm (a strange mix of charisma and naivety) necessary to make that whirlwind plausible – the chemistry between her and Smyth also helped! 

Finally, Rachel Smyth was Lise Dassin, the show’s ingénue and leading lady. Lise, not unlike Paris itself, is written as a repository for the fantasies of the men around her, a muse for a singer, a painter, and a composer. Thus, the character often has a hint of Lady Diana Spencer about her.

The flipside of Lise’s somewhat flat ephemerality, however, is that she must be able to enchant. Well, Smyth could enchant. When she danced, every movement was so intended, and her performance in Adam’s ‘ballet’, set to “An American in Paris”, was entirely mesmerising. Furthermore, Smyth successfully embodied the play’s central contrast – love set against duty – finding, in the scenes opposite Jones, the gradual warmth of someone who has previously spent a long time afraid. 

An American in Paris is not a show filled with characters possessing Shakespearean layers and complexities (though it does, admittedly, love an archetype). It is not a show of challenging, tessellated dialogue. What it is is a whirling, glittering frenzy. It has a joyous confidence in the triumph of love and art. When Lise finally chooses Jerry, you can almost convince yourself that beyond the proscenium, everything really can work out. 

An American in Paris is playing at the Oxford Playhouse until the 18th of February.