Once again, Parisians are ecstatic over the latest American musical production playing at the city’s Chatelet Theatre.
“Singin’ in the Rain is a little corner of paradise,” the French newspaper Le Figaro wrote of the show, which is playing through March 26 to sold-out audiences.
At a recent matinee performance the house was on its feet applauding to the rhythm of show’s finale, which had the entire cast tap-dancing in yellow raincoats and umbrellas to the show’s iconic title tune.
Since the mid 19th-century, this ornate theater in the heart of the French capital has been serving up opera and dance productions. But until Jean Luc Choplin became the theater’s director nearly a decade ago, American musical theater was not part of the lineup.
“I was suprised when I became director in 2006 that the major American musicals hadn’t been done in France,” says Choplin. “The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Showboat, Sondheim, A Little Night Music — none of that had been done.”
“I was told it would never work in Paris,” says Choplin, “that people were not ready for this American culture. But we dared.”
You only have to look at faces in the audience to know that Choplin won his bet. Parisian Genevieve Cautrier was beaming. “I come to every musical here,” she exclaims. “This is our little Broadway.”
Choplin says as a city-subsidized theater “it’s our responsibility to bring Parisians a wide range of productions and the best the world has to offer.”
Chatelet has now produced more than a dozen musicals, using top talent in choreography, dance and opera. Performing the shows in English seems to pose no problem. French subtitles flash across a screen and the audience laughs at all the right places.
Choplin also wants tourists and visitors to consider Paris — along with London and New York — as a venue for musical theater.
British composer Music director Gareth Valentine, who has worked extensively in London theater, says Chatelet, unlike most West End or Broadway shows these days, still performs with full orchestras. He says that makes putting on a production here “a total joy.”
“To stand in front of an orchestra of 42 people and hear that score being played … that alone is well worth the ticket price,” says Valentine.
Last fall the Chatelet Theatre worked with a team of commercial producers from Broadway to adapt the 1950s Gershwin-inspired Hollywood classic An American in Paris to the stage for the first time ever. The show debuted at the Chatelet and has just opened on Broadway.
Though the city of Paris is looking to trim the Chatelet’s subsidies, critics say that under Choplin’s guidance, the theater should continue to thrive.
Choplin is no stranger to commercial theater. He was head of artistic productions at Walt Disney studios in Los Angeles and helped launch Disneyland Paris. Critics say Choplin has found a synergy between quality and profit-making, and his eclectic, sophisticated and popular offerings have been a huge success. In the last decade Chatelet’s attendance has doubled, while ticket prices have remained affordable.
In the latest production, British dancer Dan Burton, who plays the lead role of Don Lockwood, moves seamlessly, with a booming, mellifluous voice to match. Burton says he’s thrilled to dance and sing the role made famous by Gene Kelly, and not just because Kelly is one of his idols.
“My dad was a dancer and he danced with Kelly in the French movie musical Les Demoiselles de Rochefort,” says Burton. “And for the short time they were together, my dad got to know him quite well.”
Burton says his dad’s stories, combined with his love of music and dance, have imbued him with a passion for musical theater.
Singin in the Rain has proved so popular that it will return to the Chatelet Theatre for a second run in the fall, from Nov. 27 to Jan. 15, 2016.