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Before Lin-Manuel Miranda, George Gershwin set the bar high back in the ‘20s. Don’t miss AN AMERICAN IN PARIS.

THE BASICS:  AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, the touring production of the Broadway musical presented by Shea’s & Albert Nocciolino runs through November 13, Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 & 8, and Sunday at 2 & 7 at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main Street, Buffalo, 14202. www.sheas.org (1-800-745-3000). Runtime 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission. Various stations in the lobby: a full bar, champagne bar, coffee bar, cookies and hot cinnamon nuts (mmmmm).

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Inspired by the 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, which was inspired by the 1928 orchestral work by George Gershwin, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS follows the standard plot of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl (a.k.a. complications ensue), boy gets girl back.”  The boy in this case is the American G.I. Jerry who, now that WWII is over, wants to stay in Paris and paint. He meets up with Adam, the dark and brooding ex-pat composer, and the well-heeled Henri, who wants to defy his family and become a cabaret singer. All three are in love with the same girl, the ballet dancer Lise, who has a past she’d rather keep secret. A further complication is that Milo, a rich American woman who also wants to break into Parisian culture, has taken a shine to Jerry, but he only has eyes for Lise.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:

If you’ve been somewhat bored with recent musical revivals and touring productions and are wondering “when will Lin-Manuel Miranda’s HAMILTON get to Buffalo?” then this is the musical for you. Before Miranda brought hip-hop to Broadway, two brothers, George and Ira Gershwin, brought another great American invention, jazz, to the stage.

And, for this production, orchestrator Bill Elliott (two Ls, two Ts) won a 2015 Tony for best arrangements. (In conversation, he said he was so glad that HAMILTON wasn’t part of the 2015 awards, opening up some breathing room for his Tony!) And this is an arranger’s tour de force. Yes, there are George and Ira Gershwin standards (“I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love” “’S Wonderful,” “Shall We Dance,” and “But Not for Me” to name a few) but what elevates this musical above so many is that the incidental music arranged by Elliott is also taken from George Gershwin’s catalog, using orchestral works usually heard only at BPO concerts at Kleinhans or on Classical 94.5 WNED. We have selections from Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, “Rhapsody in Blue” AND the “Second Rhapsody” along with the “Cuban Overture” and, of course, the 1928 orchestral work that inspired the 1951 film and this musical, “An American in Paris” with the famous discordant Parisian taxi horns.

Nick Spangler, Garen Scribner and Etai Benson in An American in Paris
Nick Spangler, Garen Scribner and Etai Benson in An American in Paris

And the pit orchestra? A dozen musicians plus conductor (Music Director David Andrews Rogers) were responsible for a lot of the charm. Well done. While there were three keyboards, the rest were “real” instruments. First rate.

And all the elements fit seamlessly as the music just keeps swirling, bouncing, and dancing in your ears. Meanwhile, the sets are stunning and also constantly in motion. The use of projections is getting more clever each year, but this musical takes it to a whole other level. The scrims and flats upon which projections are shown are, like the dancers, in motion throughout the evening. The projections move, the set moves, the dancers move.

And, speaking of dancers, these are the ballet dancers from the original Broadway production. And it shows.

And, speaking of dancers, these are the ballet dancers from the original Broadway production. And it shows. Their lines are longer, kicks higher, spins tighter, lifts cleaner.  The energy level was also high and reminded me of Shea’s last offering, FINDING NEVERLAND, which was tech’d in Buffalo and so we got that cast at their energetic best. The two principals, Garen Scribner as Jerry and Sara Esty as Lise, were excellent and completely at ease in this milieu.

Sara Esty and Garen Scribner in An American in Paris
Sara Esty and Garen Scribner in An American in Paris

My only complaints were entirely personal. First, when I go to a musical, I want to fall hopelessly in love with the leading lady and I want to be “that guy” – the leading man. Here, Sara Esty is perfectly suited to the role of Lise, I wouldn’t change a thing if I were the producer, but I’m just not into skinny gamin types. On the other hand, Emily Ferranti, as Milo, was much more in the Broadway mold. She was Broadway leading lady cute and curvy and she has “that” voice, the Broadway voice, that I grew up hearing.

Emily Ferranti and Garen Scribner in An American in Paris
Emily Ferranti and Garen Scribner in An American in Paris

My other complaint was that Etai Benson as Adam, the composer, the role created in the movie by Oscar Levant, who was himself a pretty quirky guy and was given some wicked lines, just didn’t, to me, measure up. Now, I feel no reason to compare Scribner to Gene Kelly nor Esty to Leslie Caron, but I was hoping for more Oscar Levant and I didn’t get it. Benson copied a lot of the trademark body language and the omnipresent cigarette, but he still looks like too nice a guy for the role.

In the end, though, let me repeat. While we wait for more Lin-Manuel Miranda to get here, let’s enjoy another “national treasure” – George Gershwin.

Lead image: An-American-in-Paris-Touring-Company

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*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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