Theater Review: An Uneven Evening Out “On The Town”

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s production can’t quite get its arms around all of the varied elements in this exhilarating musical, but some terrific performances make up for other weaknesses.

On The Town. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Based on an idea by Jerome Robbins. Directed by Spiro Veloudos. Music direction by Jonathan Goldberg. Choreographyby Ilyse Robbins. Setby Janie Howland. Produced by the Lyric Stage Company, Clarendon Street, Boston, MA, through June 8.

Taking a cab in the Lyric Stage Company production of “On the Town.” Photo: Mark S. Howard

By Terry Byrne

Leonard Bernstein’s sumptuous score for On the Town celebrates the energy and intensity of New York City, while Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s book and lyrics capture the romance and urgency of three sailors’ brief leave. The Lyric Stage Company’s production can’t quite get its arms around all of the varied elements in this exuberant show, but some terrific performances make up for other weaknesses.

On the Town was born as an expansion of Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins’ collaboration on the ballet Fancy Free, and a successful staging requires fluid pacing and frisky choreography that resonates with Bernstein’s gloriously lively music. But both director Spiro Veloudos and choreographer Ilyse Robbins seem cramped by the confines of the Lyric stage.

Veloudos succeeds best with creative staging of the intimate and often hilarious scenes exploring the exploits of three sailors on 24-hour leave in New York in the midst of World War II. The show opens on a high note, with the velvety-voiced Rishi Basu setting the scene for early morning in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. As our three heroes step on shore, each young man has a distinctly different idea about how to spend his time in the city: Chip (Phil Tayler) wants to check off the sites in the guidebook his father gave him, while Ozzie (Zachary Eisenstat) is eager to charm lots of women. But when the earnest and innocent Gabey (John Ambrosino) falls for Miss Turnstiles, based solely on her poster and description, the trio determines to track her down. They fan out, each heading in the direction of a different clue, and the comic hijinks that ensue, set to that joyously melodic Bernstein backdrop, are the meat of this show.

Each of the trio of performers delivers distinct character details with elegant dancing and strong singing. Tayler is wonderfully sincere and naïve as Chip, a farm boy overwhelmed by the the urban hurly-burly but who is determined to see the famous sights in the big city. Eisenstat’s Ozzie is extraordinarily athletic, performing backflips and cartwheels in addition to smooth vocals. And, as Gabey, Ambrosino offers just the right touch of shy, lonely guy without descending into self-indulgence, making “Lonely Town” an effective ballad and “Lucky to be Me” quite moving.

While Bernstein’s music captures all the chaotic rhythms of the city, Comden and Green’s book zooms in on some delightfully quirky characters. There are, of course, the unexpected partners for the sailors: Hildy (Michele A. DeLuca), a cab driver who takes Chip for a wild ride; Claire (the vocally stunning Aimee Doherty), an anthropologist with an eye for the hunky Ozzie; and Ivy, the elusive Miss Turnstiles (Lauren Gemelli). The show’s best numbers come from this group, either alone or together, especially the musical’s signature song, “New York, New York” and “Ya Got Me.”

Night crawling in the Lyric Stage production of  ON THE TOWN. Photo: Mark S. Howard

But the real fun in this production is provided from the supporting cast members. Maurice Emmanuel Parent is equally riveting as both a bland paleontologist describing his work and a nameless soldier dancing an elegant pas de deux with a Girl (Kayla Bryan). Sara deLima brings down the house as Ivy’s boozy vocal coach, and J. T. Turner offers a low-key turn as the wealthy judge Pitkin.

Robbins’ choreography works best in the Parent-Bryan duet and in the “Lonely Town Pas de Deux” where Gemelli dances with sailors just out of Gabey’s reach. But the potentially exhilarating ensemble scenes come off as cluttered and crowded in production numbers that include more than six performers.

Janie Howland’s abstract, skyline-like backdrops utilize changing projections to suggest various interior and exterior locations throughout the city. Jonathan Goldberg leads a rich-sounding, nine-piece orchestra that delivers all of Bernstein’s layered textures without ever overwhelming the performers onstage. Given its strengths and weaknesses, the Lyric Stage’s production of On the Town ends up taking a medium bite out of the Big Apple.

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