For their Fall 2003 Mainstage Series production, the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM) musical theater program presents a solid staging of the musical On The Town. The show, which introduced Broadway to the talents of Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Adolph Green, and Betty Comden, seems quite dated, but it allows CCM to showcase many of their top senior student performers.
On The Town began life as a ballet titled Fancy Free featuring choreography by Jerome Robbins and music by Leonard Bernstein. At the urging of their set designer Oliver Smith, the team added a book, lyrics, and much more to create a piece that would garner all-around rave reviews in 1944. The musical comedy follows three sailors on shore leave in New York City during World War II. With only 24 hours to spend, the trio sets off on various adventures. Of central significance in the story is one sailor's quest to meet a girl featured on a subway billboard as "Miss Turnstiles" of the month.
The book for On the Town by Betty Comden and Adolph Green is based on an idea by Jerome Robbins. The show hasn't aged particularly well; though the story is told effectively, the broad comedy, insufficiently developed characters and lengthy ballets seem much too slow and simple by today's standards.
For On The Town, Leonard Bernstein supplied fine music that shows the famous conductor's skill for musical theater which would later be put to even greater use in Candide, Wonderful Town, and West Side Story. The lyrics by Comden and Green are appropriate and witty. The score's most famous tune is "New York, New York." However, songs such as "Carried Away," "I Can Cook Too," and "Some Other Time" indicate the talents of these then-young writers as well.
Upperclassmen certainly are given the chance to shine with On The Town. Seven seniors and a junior take the eight largest roles, and each does admirable work. Eric Daniel Santagata is the earnest and amiable Gabey, and demonstrates strong singing and dancing skills. Matthew Risch and Kyle McDaniel are his Navy pals Ozzie and Chip, and both seniors provide solid all-around portrayals. As Ivy, Jennifer Bowles shows off her graceful dancing ability. Emily Randolph Jones supplies wonderful vocal prowess as Claire, and Lindsay Pier is suitably spunky and comical as Hildy. Perhaps making the biggest impressions are junior Benjamin Magnuson as the uptight Pitkin and Lindsay Juneau as the drunken voice teacher Madame Dilly. As usual, there is also fine work provided by the talented young ensemble.
The work by Director Aubrey Berg has both highlights and lowlights. Mr. Berg has repeatedly demonstrated brilliance for staging scenes and musical numbers in a unique and entertaining fashion. "Carried Away" and "Ya Got Me" are two examples of such skill here. He likewise routinely exhibits the ability to maintain fully appropriate pace, tone, and flow to musicals, as he does for On The Town. However, there are a couple of staging decisions that left many audience members puzzled. These include the odd use of a chorus line of old women (as in The Producers) in one scene, as well as having a completely out of place trio of effeminate young men accompany Gabey in "Lucky To Be Me." Also, the fact that several of the lengthy ballets are imaginary daydreams (rather than part of the reality of the characters) is not clearly communicated. The choreography itself, however, is top-drawer as supplied by Diane Lala. The show is extremely dance-heavy and demands almost constant movement. In both individual and group choreography, the work by Ms. Lala captures the vibrancy of the people and life in New York City. Musical director Roger Grodsky expertly leads a wonderful orchestra of twenty-nine musicians.
Instead of attempting to reproduce many of the New York City landmarks central to the plot, scenic designer Thomas C. Umfrid has wisely chosen to use various useful sliding panels based on the paintings of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian to reflect the frenetic pace of the city that never sleeps. Along with a bouncy taxicab, a smartly crafted subway car and several other set pieces, the overall visual concept is wonderfully realized by Mr. Umfrid. There are also period appropriate costumes by Rebecca Senske and first-rate lighting by Kenneth E. Helvig and James H. Gage, but the sound design by Tim Ryan leaves something to be desired, especially on the group numbers.
On The Town doesn't appear nearly as fresh and accomplished as it likely did nearly sixty years ago. However, this production is a solid one, and the piece provides many of CCM's talented students with the opportunity to try their hands at a show heavy on musical comedy and dance (which are both "in" on Broadway right now). On The Town ran at CCM from November 20 - 23, 2003.