Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

On the Town

As we approach the last day of March each year, musical theatre historians chalk up one more anniversary of the show generally acknowledged to be the groundbreaker in melding music, lyrics, dance, and book—Oklahoma!, 1943. But in the last week of the next year, a show opened that brought together songs and story—and, most prominently, dance—in its own fresh and fun way, birthing the Broadway careers of composer Leonard Bernstein and writers of book and lyrics/co-stars Betty Comden and Adolph Green: On the Town. And it's back, with a roar.


PS Classics

It's only taken seventy years for On the Town to get a truly complete recording by a cast who had lived in the roles through an actual run of a production. But, like its long-suffering character of Pitkin, it and the public is used to having to "understand." After all, its first recordings of original cast members putting down vocals for posterity meant only a handful of the numbers in the dark ages of the 78 rpm shellac records before the dark ages of the long-playing vinyl of the 1950s and beyond. It wasn't until 1960 that key members of the original cast were reunited in a recording studio to create a "full-length" recording. Of course, it wasn't really complete, given the limitations of space on discs of that day and the fact that this show has so much music, including lengthy ballet sequences for the story which itself was inspired by a ballet called Fancy Free. Over the years, there have been other recordings: three from London, a noble and quite thorough 1995 studio cast from That's Entertainment Records (TER). The film soundtrack is anything but complete, the powers-that-were having decided that some of the songs were not what they wanted and ordering replacements. And the New York revivals in the decades of the 1970s and 1990s, despite impressive casts, did not result in cast albums. In the show, the characters sing, "Oh, well, we'll catch up 'Some Other Time.'" Some other time, at last, hooray, has come. We have a dynamic and dazzling two-disc set with the big and incidental songs and lots and lots of spectacular dance music that is delightful dynamite.

Although on the PS Classics label, its house team/owners are not listed as recording producers. That credit goes to Howard and Janet Kagan and a veteran producer who's helmed some especially strong cast albums: Robert Sher. In any case, the sound is sparkling and crisp, rich with detail and sympathetically warming to some of the score's more brittle and bombastic moments. While the cast is loaded with talent and personality, there can be no question as to who the star and main attraction is here, folks: It's the orchestra. Rich and radiant, sumptuous and just out-and-out thrilling, under the masterful baton of James Moore. The playing of this very eclectic score is masterful, making one fully appreciate the breadth of Bernstein's palette. Even in this very early work, we can easily note his soon-to-trademark commanding mix of jauntiness, edginess, raggy-rhythm frolicsome generous genre-splicing. The bag of musical tricks with its short phrases and frantic but fun snippets is a musical cocktail dominated by bracing caffeine. But when this is set aside to allow for a sweeping, full-bodied lush ballad like "Lonely Town," one is swept away by the majesty as well as the captured emotion.

This story of three sailors on 24-hour leave takes place during World War II and was actually written and first performed then, the then-present leaving no space for perspective, but just the reality of the moment. As with any wartime story, some of the characters know they may not see tomorrow (or the tomorrows may be so different from today). The energy exuded by this quite fine cast manages to evoke that feeling as an underlying current, with the urgency and sexual heat (comically presented though it may be) close to the boiling point.

With the characters as written and performed, productions of On the Town have always been forced to grapple with the wide range of tones—from cartoony/silly to more realistic/sincere. Rather than strike a happy medium and let those favoring one extreme or the other find a midpoint, these opposite sensibilities remain stubbornly extreme. The grandly goofy "I Understand" for Michael Rupert's Pitkin and "Carried Away" for Clyde Alves and Elizabeth Stanley are way too over the top for my liking and I tend to like the broad and thick. Here, they just seem dopey and wit-challenged, hitting us over the head rather than let our funny bones be tickled. The most heartfelt moments ring rather true, thus cheapening these hyperbolically hammy interpretations even more. And—no surprise—Jackie Hoffman's broad humor adds fuel to the inferno. But at least she's a master at what she does and, not being a principal, her work can be seen as true comic relief.

Alysha Umphress is quite appealing as Hildy, bringing zest and youthful pluck. While there are times I wish she'd belt more (maybe I'm prejudiced, because I know she can raise the roof), she presents a likeably brash lady taxi driver and deserves a healthy tip (meaning kudos). Tony Yazbeck is the needed sincere center of the show, his genuine vulnerability radiating through. His appealing singing on the ballads makes those tracks rewarding and moving, especially with that fantastic orchestra buoying and embracing him. In the male bonding moments, he and cohorts Alves and the terrific Jay Armstrong Johnson shine, making the whole of this set of three musketeers more than the sum of its parts. Similarly, the quartet of Johnson, Alves, Umphress, and Stanley's strong soprano chill and let the bittersweet beauty of "Some Other Time" pour out like so much honey that we finally hear the heart. It's interesting to know that this number, which really lets us see the sensitive side of the characters under the more brusque exteriors, was written very late in the game, in out-of-town previews.

I can't say enough good things about the orchestral sections. Each of those tracks is like a little play in itself—from the snowballing and jackhammer energies suggesting busy Manhattan to the grand sweetness of emotional moments to the quirky cacophony of the Coney Island nuttiness, one's cups runneth over. And, as in the original wartime production and this revival's homage to it, the production/CD begins with "The Star Spangled Banner" (Bernstein's overture—fear not—is not thrown overboard to allow for this Key historical accuracy; it's just moved to the middle.)

The packaging is attractive and interesting. In addition to many photos and all the lyrics, it includes comments by director John Rando and the offspring of Bernstein (Jamie) and Green (Adam).

This new On the Town, slow-cooking its way to Broadway via the director's trying out his recipe with City Center's Encores! semi-staged book-in-hand presentation and the cast's warm-up in the Berkshires in 2013, has resulted in a banquet of joy. They rate a big Navy "E."

- Rob Lester

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