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On The Town

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Christian Borle, Tony Yazbeck, and Justin Bohon.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

City Center Encores! has become renowned around town for its annual commitment to presenting elaborate concerts of musicals' scores that might otherwise misplace or diminish. But with the new Encores! production of On the Town, running through Sunday, there's reason to suspect that the venerable series may heretofore have missed - or at least undervalued - an even higher calling: dance.

The score, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (also the librettists, and two of the original stars), has never been in danger of evaporating. The anxiously optimistic opener "New York, New York," the appetite-sating (and -inspiring) comic showpiece "I Can Cook Too," and the touching acknowledgement of love and friendship's fleeting effervescence "Some Other Time" are too firm a part of musical theatre history, and our own World War II consciousness (On the Town opened in December 1944), to ever just vanish.

Other elements have, though. George Abbott's reportedly breakneck staging must have been marvelous in holding together a show so chaotic and wonderfully messy, because John Rando's Encores! staging is sluggish and pensive, never suggesting a beat-the-clock game with life. Jerome Robbins's landscape-altering choreography didn't survive the first production, but in some form Robbins remains: He devised anew three of the show's key routines for his 1989 revue retrospective Jerome Robbins' Broadway; those have been transplanted here, and augmented with new ones, by Warren Carlyle. What a revelation the men impart.

You understand, while watching the numbers and while listening to Bernstein's tangy arrangements (gorgeously realized by conductor Todd Ellison and the Encores! Orchestra), how much choreography truly mattered at the dawn of the musical's Golden Age. Though integration is taken for granted today, dance is often ornamental, unneeded or aimlessly busy. Robbins and Carlyle allow no such appraisal of their work: Even in a stripped down production such as this one, their work glows with drama and whimsy.

Justin Bohon and Leslie Kritzer.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

When sailors Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), Ozzie (Christian Borle), and Chip (Justin Bohon) disembark their ship for 24 hours of first-time fun in New York, their shipmates bound behind them like long-caged antelopes at last running free. When Chip begins his quest to help Gabey find the girl of his daydreams, Miss Turnstiles Ivy Smith (Jessica Lee Goldyn), he stumbles into the taxi of the lusty Hildy Esterhazy (Leslie Kritzer) for a stylized seduction ("Come Up to My Place") that with only two chairs, a gear shift, and gravity is the bawdiest courting game in town. Dreaming en route to Coney Island in the waning hours of his trip, Gabey consummates his relationship with Ivy in an astounding, balletic boxing match of social and sexual frustration.

Each of these, as well as the camaraderie quintet "Ya Got Me," the haunting "Lonely Town" melting into meanderingly mellow compartments of agonized aloneness, and the "Times Square Ballet" for personifying hopefulness at the Crossroads of the World, serves as both a complete artistic creation and an indelible component of the show as a whole. These are not exhibition pieces, but integral to the progression of the plot, the tension about whether these men will know joy one last time before going off to fight - and probably die - to defend the democracy that enabled it all.

It's as necessary as the book, at any rate, and in many ways far more serious. Composed mostly of vignettes, built on uneasily jokey jokes and even one-joke characters, and seldom delivered here with precise pacing, the tired-businessman libretto as David Ives has "adapted" it does not always go down easy. Were it not for major personalities and crack comedians in the supporting roles much of it might not go down at all.

With the exception of born-clown Kritzer, who wields double entendres with near-lethal force, the central sextet - which also includes Jennifer Laura Thompson as skirt-chaser Ozzie's squeeze, anthropologist Claire de Loone - is a mighty bland bunch. They're up to the rigors of singing Bernstein's music, which is as rangy, difficult, and whizzingly unpredictable as New York itself as it veers from Broadway torch to mock opera with stops everywhere in between, and Carlyle and Robbins' dances (particularly Yazbeck and Goldyn in their fantasy tryst near evening's end).

But the characters they create barely stand out in this weird mid-century Manhattan, and because the other trappings are so elaborately realized (including John Lee Beatty's spare set pieces and Martin Pakledinaz's clever and clingy costumes) that anyone not up to snuff is left behind as surely as if they missed the subway. Michael Cumpsty, as Claire's stuffed-shirt fiancé Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework, and the luxuriously loopy Andrea Martin as Ivy's drunk-off-her-A-flat singing teacher are the only ones individual enough to fit into Comden and Green's off-kilter Valentine to wartime America.

The initial song of this zoom-paced greeting card isn't what you expect, either: It's "The Star-Spangled Banner." A Playbill note mentions that it was played before every performance, ostensibly to unify the audience and remind them of why they - and especially the boys in white - were doing all this. It worked at the critics' preview I attended: As one, the audience stood when it began and sat only when it finished.

This On the Town would be more satisfying if these were the evening's only motionless minutes. Even so, when Carlyle gets his corps going, nothing else in town moves anything like them. If that's musical theatre lovers' loss the rest of the year, for the rest of this week, it's a sizable gain.

On The Town
Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert
Through November 23
City Center Main Stage, 130 West 56th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: New York City Center

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