'On the Town': Theater Review
The 1944 hit that put Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden and Adolph Green on the Broadway map gets a spirited revival courtesy of director John Rando and a fine cast
A glorious 28-piece orchestra playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in front of a giant American flag safety curtain has the audience on its feet before On the Town gets started. But it’s the jagged blasts of brass, the languorously bluesy romantic ballads and the exuberant comedy numbers of Leonard Bernstein’s jazzy score that make this vibrant Broadway revival such transporting entertainment. Then there’s the dancing, with ballet interludes that mark the groundbreaking 1944 show as a distinctive hybrid. If the humor in Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s book veers into cornball, who’s complaining when the production packs so much charm?
On the Town is remembered for the effervescent 1949 MGM screen version that starred Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, even if many of the songs were ditched. Comden and Green fleshed out the story of three couples caught up in whirlwind flings from the Jerome Robbins ballet Fancy Free, which still turns up in the New York City Ballet repertoire. The show’s original production had a healthy run of just over a year, ushering in a new kind of musical comedy. But Broadway revivals in both 1971 and 1998 fizzled.
The director this time around, John Rando, embraces both the strengths and weaknesses of the musical about three World War II American sailors on 24-hour shore leave in New York City, looking for a quick hit of sightseeing and sex. Rando previously shepherded a lovely semi-staged 2008 concert version for the Encores! series, which brought propulsion, buoyancy and youthfulness to the wafer-thin escapade. He returns to the show with this production, first seen at Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires in summer 2013.
Trying to modernize On the Town would make it seem hopelessly quaint. Rando (a 2002 Tony winner for Urinetown) instead is unapologetic in presenting the old-fashioned material at face value, playing even the silliest routines with a mostly light touch and injecting the whole dizzy narrative with an air of yearning romance. He enlists the aid of choreographer Joshua Bergasse (NBC’s Smash) to channel the expressive athleticism of Robbins’ dances.
The chief element retained from the director’s earlier brush with the show is his winning lead Tony Yazbeck, a dependable Broadway yeoman who arguably has never been more ideally cast than as Gabey. Whether in dramatic scenes, songs or in his rapturous dance numbers, Yazbeck brings just the right balance of masculinity and vulnerability, unworldliness and floating-on-air grace to the openhearted farm boy dreaming of love. It’s a star turn and yet seems so effortless it’s almost self-effacing.
Yazbeck gets one of the musical’s two heartbreaker numbers, “Lonely Town,” staged with gorgeous minimalism on a bare Battery Park set as the Staten Island Ferry disappears into a pastel blue sky and the Statue of Liberty’s torch twinkles among low-hanging clouds. Designer Beowulf Boritt’s stylized sets with their large cutouts are at times a little garish and can make the stage seem crowded. But moments of visual simplicity like this one can be breathtaking.
The revival’s producers have set themselves a challenge, filling a huge barn of a theater like the newly renamed Lyric (former home of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) without star names to adorn the marquee. But On the Town is one of the great New York musicals, so targeting the tourist market might help. Even the most jaded audiences are likely to get a kick out of being just steps away from the actual setting of the pulsing “Times Square Ballet.” And hearing Gabey and his footloose Navy pals Ozzie (Clyde Alves) and Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) sing “New York, New York” is not so much a salute to “a helluva town” as an explosion of pure joy.
That trio’s fancy-free day ashore gets a purpose when Gabey spots a poster on the subway for that month’s Miss Turnstiles, Ivy Smith (Megan Fairchild). Determined to help him find his dream girl, the three sailors split up and follow clues.
Chip and Ozzie each get sidetracked. Chip meets man-eater Hildy (Alysha Umphress), a freshly fired cab driver looking to make her last fare count; Ozzie encounters the anthropologist Claire de Loone (Elizabeth Stanley) in the prehistory wing of the Natural History Museum. She judges him to be an excellent specimen of Pithecanthropus Erectus. Meanwhile, Gabey finds his target taking vocal lessons at Carnegie Hall Studios. Trying to move up in the world of culture from her degrading job as a Coney Island “cooch dancer,” Ivy tries to resist Gabey’s sweet overtures before eventually agreeing to meet him that night. But her dipsomaniac fraud of a vocal teacher, Madame Maude P. Dilly (Jackie Hoffman), sabotages their plan.
Comden and Green set a bunch of people on the tails of the various couples, among them a cop, an irate old crone, an outraged paleontologist, Claire’s starchy fiancé Pitkin (Michael Rupert) and Hildy’s homely roommate Lucy Schmeeler (Allison Guinn). But the slapstick antics of that chase are less engaging than the many delightful comic vignettes that punctuate the pursuit.
Rando and Boritt have done particularly inspired work staging “Come Up to My Place,” in which Hildy gives Chip a high-speed tour of Manhattan before showing him the real sights. The frantic sequence makes terrific use of projections in an otherwise low-tech design, and the physical comedy skills of Umphress and Johnson are sublime. Umphress also sizzles in “I Can Cook Too.” Stanley uses her imperious soprano vocals to hilarious effect in “Carried Away,” as scholarly Claire releases her inner primitive woman — not for the first time. Even the throwaway parts of Pitkin and Lucy yield some fun in the droll number in which Claire’s thankless doormat renounces his standard response of “I Understand.”
The one area in which Rando pushes too hard for laughs is with human cartoon Hoffman. Not only as Mme. Dilly but in a series of bit parts, the always-amusing character actress attempts to turn the show into “Tales of Hoffman” with her unrestrained sourpuss mugging.
One of the qualities that makes On the Town so beguiling, however, is the quieter interludes. The extended dance sequences of Act II, in which Gabey’s imagination runs wild with his misperception of Coney Island as a “playground of the rich,” are enchanting. Fairchild shows her limitations as a musical-comedy actress in Ivy’s small handful of book scenes, but those are easy to overlook while watching the longtime City Ballet principal flutter around Yazbeck in the sensual fantasy ballet that shifts from an ethereal mist to a prizefighter ring.
The shadow of war and mortal danger doesn’t really intrude much here, but the melancholy spell of the lovers’ “Some Other Time,” as their parting approaches, gives the show a lingering poignancy that serves as a counterpoint to its general playfulness. There’s richly soulful feeling also in the Brooklyn Navy Yard dockworker’s opening song, “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet,” beautifully performed by bass-baritone Phillip Boykin.
During “Lonely Town,” Rando places ensemble members throughout the auditorium, meaning some audience members can experience the rumbling power of Boykin’s voice just inches away. But there’s ample pleasure on offer no matter where you’re sitting.
Cast: Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Clyde Alves, Megan Fairchild, Alysha Umphress, Elizabeth Stanley, Jackie Hoffman, Michael Rupert, Allison Guinn, Phillip Boykin, Stephen DeRosa, Tanya Birl, Angela Brown, Holly Ann Butler, Julius Carter, Kristine Covillo, Lori Ann Ferreri, Stephen Hanna, Eloise Kropp, Brandon Leffler, Jess LeProtto, Cory Lingner, Skye Mattox, Michael Rosen, Samantha Sturm, Christopher Vo, Cody Williams, Mikey Winslow
Director: John Rando
Book & lyrics: Betty Comden, Adolph Green, based on an idea by Jerome Robbins
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Set & projection designer: Beowulf Boritt
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Music director: James Moore
Choreographer: Joshua Bergasse
Presented by Howard and Janet Kagan, Severn Partners Entertainment, Bruce Robert Harris and Jack W. Batman, Paula Marie Black, Nigel Lythgoe, Michael J. Moritz Jr., Mahoney/Alden/Badway, Ambassador Theatre Group, Margie and Bryan Weingarten, Kim Schall, Michael Rubenstein, Terry/Louise/Chris Lingner, Brunish & Trinchero, Stephanie Rosenberg, Laruffa & Hinderliter, Rubinstein/Handelman, A&A Gordon, Matt Ross/Ben Feldman/Pamela Cooper and Barrington Stage Company