Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 16, 2014
On the Town Music by Leonard Bernstein. Book and Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Based on an idea by Jerome Robbins. Direction by John Rando. Choreography by Joshua Bergasse. Music direction by James Moore. Scenic & projection design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by Jason Lyons. Sound design by Kai Harada. Hair design by Leah Loukas. Makeup design by Joe Dulude II. Cast: Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Clyde Alves, Megan Fairchild, Alysha Umphress, Elizabeth Stanley, Michael Rupert, Allison Gunn, Phillip Boykin, Stephen deRosa, and Jackie Hoffman; Chip Abbott, Tanya Birl, Angela Brydon, Holly Ann Butler, Julius Carter, Peter Chrusin, Kristine Covillo, Lori Ann Ferreri, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Stephen Hanna, Eloise Kropp, Brandon Leffler, Jess Leprotto, Cory Lingner, Skye Mattox, Michael Rosen, Samantha Sturm, Christopher Vo, Cody Williams, Mikey Winslow.
The best news about this On the Town, a swanked-up import from Barrington Stage Company that’s been directed by John Rando and choreographed to a frothy fare-thee-well by Joshua Bergasse, is that it’s not done yet. Although this is hardly the best imaginable mounting of this show, it comes close enough to be worth a trip for even the most skeptical revivalgoers (a group in which I, admittedly, often find myself).
Want a big orchestra for hearing Bernstein’s composing debut the way intended it? You’ve got it — 28 players, plus a fleet-fingered conductor–musical director in James Moore. Looking for tons of choreography to capture the percolating spirit of World War II Manhattan? Bergasse has gone all out, embracing original impresario Jerome Robbins’s concepts while devising a stylized dance language, covering a sumptuous array of period forms, all his own. As for the physical production, Beowulf Boritt has unlocked the fairy-tale wackiness of the city in his wide-open, Runyonland–meets–Art Deco sets and clever (if sometimes too-frantic) projections, Jess Goldstein has supplied a dizzying collection of gorgeous costumes, and Jason Lyons has lighted everything with an all-knowing, streetlamp love.
It is, in other words, the ideal atmosphere for exploring 24 hours in the lives of three sailors on leave before shipping out to goodness-knows-where: Gabey (Tony Yazbeck) the romantic, Ozzie (Clyde Alves) the womanizer, and Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) the tourist. They’ve got a zillion plays, most of which get sidelined when, while riding the subway, Gabey falls in love with a picture of this month’s Miss Turnstiles, Ivy Smith, whom Ozzie and Chip, owing their lives to Gabey from previous engagements, determine to find before the day is out.
Most important, they have and reveal fun, which is all that On the Town really has on its mind. It’s here that we’re teleported across the decades, watching pure zaniness that only holds together because librettist-lyricists Comden and Green and, to a much more significant extent, Robbins, long ago insisted it should. And, treated with respect, it still does, and transforms the impossibly improbable story into one that represents musical theatre at both its most embryonic and its most advanced.
Little in the canon quite compares with the boisterous opening number, “New York, New York,” which evokes as little else the starstruck feeling of seeing America’s singular city for the first time, and translates that excitement into the exciting dances the city dwellers don’t know they’re performing. Or the electric celebration of friendship in “Ya Got Me,” when Hildy and company try to cheer up Gabey after he’s already found and lost Ivy once. Or, especially, Gabey’s epic second-act ballet, which finds him piercing through his notions of class to conquer Ivy, in every way, in whatever time he has. (Chip and Ozzie, for the record, do not have to imagine their home runs.)
This is, simply put, what musical theatre should be, and as long as this production keeps that in mind, it’s sparkling gold. Gabey’s ballet is spectacular, by the way, charged with longing and sexual tension by experienced Broadway hand Yazbeck and ballet star Fairchild, and compressing the sprawling Lyric stage into what alternately feels like a boxing ring and an in-use honeymoon suite. (With the exception of the playful Miss Turnstiles ballet in Act I, the other dance numbers don’t quite measure up to this, though they’re all well above average.) Johnson imbues Chip with robust acrobatic skills (especially in his comic knocking about Hildy’s cab) and an odd, but winning, amorous cluelessness. Hoffman, too, is ideally cast as not just Maude but a succession of other old-nag roles that put her to perfect use delivering, without exception, the night’s hugest laughs time and time again. And that orchestra is old-fashioned in every best sense of the word.
It’s with everything else, however, that flaws begin to creep in — not big ones, mind you, but lesser problems that, after a while, add up. Rando’s pacing is erratic, and the lack of a consistent energy throughout does hurt the evening, especially when things in the second act must pull back to let us hold our breath. (This is particularly notable with the bittersweet lovers’ quartet “Some Other Time,” given here a heartfelt, but restless and aimless, rendering.) And ones does wish Rando had resisted the urge to implement minor tweaks to the script and score (“additional material” is credited to Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins), which invariably serve to yank us out of the time rather than immerse us further in it.
The cast, too, is strangely uneven. With six leads and three major supporting characters, there are roughly nine different shows onstage at the same time. Yazbeck and Fairchild come closest to presenting a unified front, but it’s not something Armstrong and Alves, who’s settled on giving Ozzie an inch-thick, unappealing crudeness, can match. Stanley is quite good in her faux-patrician portrayal, but has no discernible chemistry with Alves. Gunn tries far too hard as Lucy, and falls short of landing most of her jokes. Shakiest of all is Umphress, who’s a firecracker in the dialogue but brings third-rate-cabaret-artist soullessness to her songs, most especially her raggedly jazzed-up “I Can Cook, Too” — which is neither alluring nor hilarious, and is barely listenable.
Most of these issues occur in the moments where this team trusted Bernstein, Comden, and Green least. On the Town may have been that trio’s introduction to Broadway, but they knew what they were doing — they don’t need help from anyone today. Neither do audiences, for that matter. This is a musical that speaks, sings, and dances for itself, joyously and unafraid. When anything gets in the way, as occasionally happens, it’s no special shakes. But when it’s allowed to be itself, in all its glittering ’40s glory, there’s no greater show — or time machine — in town.