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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Dancing and Direction Save
This Production of On the Town

Also see Richard's review of Of Mice and Men

I consider myself somewhat of an aficionado of On the Town since this Bernstein classic was one of the first productions that introduce me to the world of musical theater. I first saw On the Town while in the service, stationed outside New York City. I obtained tickets from the USO to see the Broadway production at the Adelphi Theatre which was to become the “bridge” to my loving musical theater. That night I discovered Leonard Bernstein’s music, the lyrics of Betty Comden and Adolph Green (both of whom were also in the cast), the dances of Jerome Robbins and a cast of energetic young dancers and singers including the infallible Nancy Walker as Hildy the taxicab driver. Before leaving New York, I was able to catch the musical three times. I knew every song, every beat of the music by heart. It was the bounce, the energy and the non-hackneyed score that pushed me into being a lover of Broadway musicals.

On the Town was a watershed musical since it ushered in a new style - a blend of music, comedy and dance. It ran over 462 performances on Broadway. The production had several firsts: the first American musical to be composed by a classically trained ‘symphonist’; it broke interracial new ground by having black and white dancers side by side; and it was the first show to be bought sight unseen by a Hollywood film company. MGM finally made its first “out of studio” film by filming some of the footage on New York streets in 1949. Unfortunately, the studio threw out most of Bernstein’s music and put in some mundane songs so we saw a watered down version of this electrifying show.

On the Town was revived in 1971 at the Imperial Theatre with Ron Husmann (as one of the sailors) and three young actresses who would go on to be become great Broadway stars: Bernadette Peters, Donna McKechnie and Phyllis Newman. I saw the revival production and found the show had somehow lost its zing. It was unsuccessful and ran only 73 performances. Another revival in 1998 received disastrous reviews and ran only 69 performances at the Gershwin. There have been several local productions of the difficult and complex musical. The American Musical Theatre attempted a production but they could not capture the youthful spirit. The now defunct Venus Rising Company did a superb innovative production several years ago that did capture the vibrant spirit of the musical (a review of that production is in the achives).

Foothill Music Theatre, under the direction Jay Manley, is presenting a full scale On the Town with great sets, Jerome Robbins-like choreography by Tyler Risk, and a 23 piece orchestra. Mr. Manley is helming a very talented young group of singers and dancers, and he has come off with a winner. Since most of the original Jerome Robbins’ choreography was never put down on paper, Risk has devised Robbins-like dances for this outstanding group of dancers. Mr. Manley puts a total of almost 50 actors on the stage in various scenes. This could have been a catastrophe but he has blocked these scenes to perfection. The orchestra is on the mark with the difficult Bernstein score.

On the Town tells of the adventures of three sailors: Chip, Ozzie and Gabey. They’re on shore leave in New York City for 24 hours and each has a goal. Chip wants to see the sights his father told him about, Ozzie wants to find some women, and Gabey wants to find that special someone for him. Each sailor finds a woman to fulfill his dreams, but not without plenty of chaos in between. The sailors in this production are played by Joe Duffy, Nathan Baynard and Jared Lee. There is an uneven balance in this threesome because Joe Duffy has a big theatrical background while Baynard and Lee are just starting in the business. However, what they lack in voice they make up for with energy and youthfulness. Mr. Duffy, who is also the assistant choreographer in this production, has been in the national touring companies of Gypsy, Grease and recently Parade. He is a strong presence in this trio and seems to overpower the other two. His Groucho Marx mannerisms work well as the woman chasing Ozzie. Jared Lee as Gabey has a very good voice but he does have some problems with the difficult score. His projection could be stronger, but that might be partly the problem of the sound system.

The women are very good, with Chicago actress Amy Lyn McDonald playing Claire. She is particularly outstanding in the “Carried Away” number with Joe Duffy. Carrie Madsen-Olson looks good in her role as Ivy Smith, but she has little stage time to develop her character. Julie Valentine plays a toned down Hildy. I had hoped she would be a little harder or more campy like Nancy Walker or Lea DeLaria. The weakest scene is the lead-in to the song “I Can Cook Too” with a split stage of Hildy’s apartment on stage left and Claire's apartment on the right and both scenes interacting with each other. The timing was off on the Sunday matinee and it did not give the song a smooth introduction. The best singing comes from James Akin who plays Judge Pinkin. His strong voice is exceptional in “I Understand.”

Joe Ragey's set designs and costumes by Janis Bergman are outstanding. The sets have a “Broadway excellence” about them and the '40s period costumes are completely on the mark. The chorus is splendid and the dancers very graceful and easy. This production still has the freshness, exuberance and youth of the original New York production.

On the Town is currently running at the Smithwick Theatre, Foothill College, Los Altos Hills and will play through August 11. Box Office phone number is 650-948-4444. Their next production will be On the Twentieth Century due to open in February 2003.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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