‘On the Town’ — Exuberant Love Letter to NYC

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Photo by Joan Marcus
Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 The Broadway revival of On the Town demonstrates why, when the show first hit Broadway in 1944, everyone took note.

This was introducing a new youthful exuberance to the Broadway Theater.  The four people most involved in its origination:  Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and choreographer Jerome Robbins were 26, 27, 30 and 28 respectively. These were new voices being heard.

The musical itself was based on the Bernstein-Robbins ballet for the American Ballet Theater earlier in 1944 about three sailors in New York City for just 24 hours.  Comden and Green, whom Bernstein had worked with in Greenwich Village where, along with Judy Holliday, they had performed as “The Revuers,” were brought in to flesh out the plot and to write the book and lyrics.

Photo by Joan Marcus
Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck and CLyde Alves. Photo by Joan Marcus

The story remained the same but additional characters and complications were added.   Three sailors are on 24- hour leave in New York City, each looking to find a girl.   Gabey — who seems to be the first among equals — falls for the picture of Ivy Smith, “Miss Turnstiles” – the ordinary girl who is selected to represent the subways for the month.  He is determined to track her down; he and his friends split up, each looking for her in different parts of the city.

Over the course of the 24 hours each of them has various adventures as they search the city — mainly Manhattan; each finds  love.

Ozzie is the cerebral one, wanting to see all of NYC’s sights in one day.  He ends up meeting Claire, an “unusual” anthropologist at the Museum of Natural History.  Chip, who is the smooth talking sailor meets Hildy, a confident taxi driver while Gabey actually does find Ivy, his Miss Turnstiles.

Photo by Joan Marcus.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

This production directed by John Rando and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse keeps the youthful energy that the original production must have had.

One of the most delightful things about this production is the scenic and projection design by Beowulf Boritt which captures all of NYC’s vibrancy and individual neighborhoods.  You do get a true sense of the city. His vision is aided by the lighting design of Jason Lyons and the costumes of Jess Goldstein — though those could have been more mid-1940s in styles.

An ensemble company plays multiple roles. In particular Jackie Hoffman and Stephen DeRosa do triple and quintuple duty in a variety of comic roles.  Hoffman plays everything from an irate old woman, to a alcoholic voice teacher while DeRose is hilarious as various emcees.

Tony Yazbeck shines as Gabey.  Connecticut audiences will remember him in the Tommy Tune role in My One and Only at Goodspeed several years ago for which he won a Connecticut Critics Circle award. He has been with this show since its production a year agor at Barrington Stage Company and the experience shows. He totally encapsulates Gabey.  Plus he is a fine dancer and also demonstrates strong vocal skills.

Megan Fairchild and TonyYazbeck. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Megan Fairchild and TonyYazbeck. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The other two sailors: Chip played by Jay Armstrong Johnson and Ozzie played by Clyde Alves (who was also in the Barrington production)  are also strong singers and dancers as well as displaying deft comic skills.

Megan Fairchild is Ivy Smith, more of a dancing role. She is certainly an expert at that.  Fairchild is a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet.  But she handles the acting and the limited singing nicely.  She also projects the genuineness of this “ordinary New York woman.”

The other two female roles are more exaggerated and more comic.  Elizabeth Stanley plays the anthropologist, Claire De Loone as the slightly schizophrenic character she is.  While seeing her and Ozzie interact it is useful to remember that Comden and Green originated these roles on Broadway.

Jay Armstrong Johnson and Alysha Umphress. Photo by Joan Marcus
Jay Armstrong Johnson and Alysha Umphress. Photo by Joan Marcus

Alysha Umphress is also reprising her role as Hildy – the man-hungry, taxi driver who takes up with Chip.

Any Bernstein score is bound to be filled with wonderful tunes.  Most are familiar with “New York, New York” — a love song to the city but you will discover a treasure trove of other songs.  While “Carried Away” is not a favorite of mine, there’s also “I Can Cook, Too,”  “Lucky to Be Me,:  “So Long Baby” and the beautiful and melancholy “Some Other Time.”

Yet for me, this is a show that has never quite “worked..”  In converting the ballet to a musical, there are numerous ballet/dance sequences including the requisite for 1940s musicals, a dream ballet.  It’s not that the dancing isn’t terrific or that the dance music isn’t great.  The problem, for me, is that the dance mainly repeats action that has already taken place on stage rather than advance the plot or provide us with more insight into the characters.

I’ve always thought that this was a show that needed editing — either some of the dance sequences should be cut OR some of the songs/dialogue.

Still, this is an exuberant production of a show that celebrates what many of us consider the greatest city in the world.

On the Town is at the Lyric Theater on 42nd Street. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.

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