“Two fog machines, sixteen feather fans, two top hats, and seven pairs of tap shoes.” According to Ollie Khurshid, director of the upcoming production of An American in Paris, the show-stopping number “Stairway to Paradise” makes use of all these. 

And that’s just for starters. 

Sitting in the Corpus Christi auditorium on Saturday 11th for the show’s sitzprobe, I believed him. The room was a maelstrom of activity – a cast, crew, and orchestra just four days away from opening night. Unsurprisingly – given it was a sitzprobe for a Gershwin score – the first thing that struck me was the sound, and I do mean struck in a very literal sense. 

The orchestra, when at full strength, comprises 20 members. Khurshid informed me after the rehearsal’s conclusion that several had been missing (the 11th was also Mahler night for the Oxford University Orchestra), including all the strings, save for one cello. It is testament to just how good this show’s orchestra is (and how much of a musical dunce I am, but I prefer to emphasise the former) that I didn’t even notice. 

The cast of 19 appears similarly strong. Certainly, the vocal snippets I caught were thrilling:  Jelani Munroe’s vibrato, for example, is sonic velvet. And hearing the end of “I Got Rhythm”, when the ensemble harmonies start multiplying like the hydra’s heads, was the theatrical equivalent of opening a Christmas present early. “Who could ask for anything more?” Well, indeed. 

I asked Khurshid to summarise the musical. He said it’s about “how we rebuild our lives” in the face of devastation; in this instance, World War II. It’s also about the eternal trade-off between duty and desire, or, as Khurshid put it (with euphonically superior alliteration), whether or not we pursue “love and liberation”. 

The show’s principal female character, Lise Dassin (a parisienne in Paris) is most obviously in this position – it’s a comfortably worn musical theatre trope: do I marry the safe man, or do I wait for the one I love? We get a similar question, albeit reversed, in West Side Story: do I marry the wrong man out of love, or wait for a more ‘appropriate’ match; i.e. with Chino. 

We get this same question in, to choose just one (very good) example, Pocahontas, through the metaphor of “Just Around the Riverbend”.

The choice of solidity versus gut instinct is also one which we encounter daily, in ways big and small. Essay or ATIK? Lecture or lash? Civil service or consultancy? (Civil service for that one). In sincerity though, I think the story is one that will resonate.

An American in Paris is also a “spectacle”. There is dancing! And Oxford, as Khurshid points out, “doesn’t usually do dancey shows”. This particular show is in its ninth week of rehearsals (considering how long an Oxford term feels, that might as well be a lifetime), in large part because of the complexities of choreographing a large show; particularly when not everyone is an experienced dancer. 

Yet during the sitzprobe (which is principally concerned with how the show sounds), people were nonetheless practising their steps. “Practising” is perhaps the wrong word. It looked really, really fun. I even spotted a couple of “tap-offs” in the background. 

If this rehearsal is any insight, and I hope it is, into what we will see in fifth week…well, An American in Paris might even keep those blues at bay. 

An American in Paris is running at the Oxford Playhouse from February 15th to February 18th.