65 Years Young On the Town Fresh and Delightful
Also see Tim's review of On the Town
Suggested by the Jerome Robbins-Leonard Bernstein ballet, Fancy Free, which had debuted earlier in 1944, On the Town follows three sailors in New York City on 24 hours leave from their ship. Gabey is smitten with the subway poster for Ivy Smith, the month's Miss Turnstiles (does anyone remember the Miss Subways posters?), and the three sailors set off separately to follow clues on the poster as to where she might be found. Gabey locates Ivy, Chip hooks up with Hildy Esterhazy, a sex hungry taxicab driver, and Ozzie does the same with Claire DeLoone, a cerebral anthropologist who also gets "carried away." Throughout the entire show, the sailors are chased by three sets of policemen and complainants as the result of their comic misadventures. The scenes shift rapidly from the subways to Carnegie Hall to the Museum of Natural History to Times Square to a series of New York night clubs to Coney Island in a whirlwind of music, dance and hilarity as the authors poke humor at New Yorkers, their institutions, and mores, as well as the popular music styles of the era.
Leonard Bernstein's music for On the Town is as fresh, varied and generous as anything he has ever written. The richly melodic ballad "Lucky to Be Me" has a tensile strength that is thrilling. "Lonely Town" and "Some Other Time" are the other outstanding ballads. The jagged, symphonic dance music captures the tempo and excitement of New York City, and its relationship to the later Bernstein score for the film On the Waterfront and the dance music for West Side Story is unmistakable beginning with the scene-setting "New York, New York" and its music's muscular arrangements during the show's ballets. His upbeat pop music is both delightful ("I Can Cook Too" and "Ya Got Me") and, when called for, parodist. Comden and Green's lyrics are as fresh and funny, as well as tender and feeling, as their zany and amazingly confident book.
Director Bill Berry manages to keep the complex elements of the show spinning. His ensemble has to play so many roles and cope with so many scene and costume changes that one must be in awe of the sharp, smooth and swift opening night performance. The number of dance numbers and extended ballets that Patti Colombo has staged is extraordinary in and of itself. Her wide ranging choreography is always entertaining and interesting, meshes perfectly with the score, and is an exact fit for the emotions and story at hand. At the conclusion of the "Imaginary Coney Island" ballet, there is a section in which Gabey's anxiety about being in combat is revealed. I cannot recall this being depicted in two earlier productions of the show. In any event, this concluding section feels new and modern as well as appropriate and weighty. The musical arrangements for the seventeen-piece orchestra convey the sinew of the score.
By and large, the production team has done extraordinarily well in casting roles with fresh performers who deftly carry off roles which require a high level of singing and dancing skills. Tyler Hynes is a most likeable Gabey and his singing and dancing are first rate. His rendition of "Lucky to Be Me" is perfectly pitched. Jeffrey Schecter (Ozzie) and Brian Shepard (Chip) also sing and dance well and bring distinctive personalities to their roles. Kelly Sullivan stands out as the anthropologist Claire. Sullivan's performance is truly funny, and her interpretation of "Some Other Time" is just as bittersweet and lovely as it should be. Her comedic duet with Jeffrey Schecter ("Carried Away") along with its ensemble choreography is another show highlight. Jennifer Cody (Hildy) is a dynamo and blasts out "I Can Cook Too" with gusto. However, Cody is simply too relentlessly wired throughout. A little subtlety and modulation would be helpful. Yvette Tucker makes for a pleasing Ivy Smith.
The supporting cast and ensemble are exceptionally fine. Harriet Harris (Madame Dilly), Bill Nolte (Pitkin), Tari Kelly (Lucy Schmeeler), Steven Ted Beckler (Baritone) and the entire dance ensemble make sizable contributions.
The sets by Walt Spangler start off more than well enough (a curtain of facsimile Navy recruiting signs, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the Museum of Natural History). However, one major design element is problematic. It consists of four or five panels representing skyscrapers which move about the stage in different configurations as the settings change. Running vertically through these panels are what appear to be bars of neon light in six phosphorescent colors (two to three different colors at a time). These impressionist "buildings" are ugly and distracting, and draw one's attention away from the performers. Although they not quite as jarring during the later nightlife sequences, the production would benefit from the elimination of their chintzy light effect. At times, the neon effect slips distractingly into the lighting design of Tom Sturge. The myriad costumes by David C. Woolard make an essential, often humorous, contribution to the production.
On the Town is a particularly complex and difficult musical to produce. There have only been two Broadway revivals. These revivals, in 1971 and 1998, only ran for two and three months, respectively. I saw the latter revival, which left the impression that the broad, sketch-like comedy had not dated well and that the once beloved On the Town might no longer be stage worthy. I am most grateful that the current Paper Mill production totally erases this impression.
Director Bill Berry, choreographer Patti Colombo and the freshest, hardest working cast that one could ever see, have restored On the Town to its proper place as a sparkling gem of the American musical theatre. Although the era of its creators has passed, this production is proof positive that On the Town remains as delightfully fresh and exuberant a show as one could ever hope to see.
On the Town continues performances through December 6, 2009 (Evenings: Wednesday Thursday 7:30 pm; Friday Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 7:00 pm; Matinees: Thursdays, Saturdays & Sundays 1:30 pm - no performances Thursday, November 26; additional matinees November 25 and 27 at 1:30 pm) at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343. Online: www.papermill.org.
On the Town music by Leonard Bernstein; book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; based on an idea by Jerome Robbins; directed by Bill Berry; choreographed by Patti Colombo