What fun! I’m so glad to have seen On the Town, a hard-to-get-right musical in this lovely, lusty, and lithe production.
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 John Rando. Music Direction by Darren R. Cohen. Choreography by Joshua Bergasse. Staged by the Barrington Stage Company. At the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Pittsfield, MA, through July 13.
By Helen Epstein.
If you like theater light and luscious as a summer soufflé, get yourself to the Barrington Stage Company’s On the Town. While it is possible that some enterprising producer will snap up this effervescent production and bring it to Boston or New York, why gamble?
In 1944 Leonard Bernstein and his summer camp pal Adolph Green were in their mid-20s when they and Green’s cabaret partner Betty Comden wrote this, their first Broadway hit. Comden and Green were part of a trio with Judy Holliday called the Revuers, who played clubs and wrote their own material because they couldn’t afford to pay royalties for published scripts. Bernstein and Jerome Robbins had just scored their first big hit with the ballet Fancy Free. A friend thought that the idea of sailors on furlough could be made into a musical. Bernstein wrote a new score, Comden and Green supplied the lyrics and book, and Robbins, the choreography. None of them served in the World War that was then in its last months, and they witnessed one of its domestic by-products: a pan-sexual horniness.
On the Town, which calls for a large orchestra and cast, was a great success in the last days of December of 1944, and its initial exuberance, to my mind, has not been replicated since. Yes, there was a bland movie (with Frank Sinatra), several revivals including one at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and concert versions, but none managed to inhabit the wit and insouciance of this musical until now. All but Bernstein were native New Yorkers who slyly worked the city’s inside jokes, stock characters, and pitfalls for out-of-towners into the hijinks.
Not to be confused with the later and more earnest (1953) musical Wonderful Town, based on the book My Sister Eileen, On the Town follows three sailors—Ozzie, Gabey, and Chip from Peoria—over the course of a blithe 24-hour furlough that begins and ends in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. This is a show that employs men and women equally, and it’s especially hilarious to watch the three female leads—Brunhilde (Hildy) Esterhazy, Ivy Smith (Miss Turnstiles), and Clair de Loone (an anthropology professor)—have a blast in their roles.
Barrington Stage Company’s On the Town is one of those exuberant and rare productions where the direction, design, casting, acting, and dancing blend so seemingly effortlessly that the audience feels blessed to see it in an intimate, 520-seat theater where the actors can scamper off the stage and into the aisles.
Set designer Beowulf Boritt (whose name might have been invented by Comden-Green) has let the silhouette of Manhattan’s skyscape serve as the backdrop and uses key props designate the scenes: a huge American flag greets the audience as they enter to evoke the war that is in its last months; a suggestion of a ship’s prow designates the Brooklyn Navy Yard; a 1940s stove is all we see of a tiny kitchen; a standing microphone and a shimmering curtain suggest a succession of night clubs. Most of the scenes take place in what are well-known landmarks: The Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Hall Studios for Artists, Times Square, and Coney Island.
It would be easy for a director to treat the six leading characters as caricatures, but director John Rando wisely chose to view them as three-dimensional, winsome young people. His direction is flawless, and his actors are superb. I particularly liked Tony Yazbeck’s nuanced Gabey, the shy romantic who falls in love at first sight with an advertisement for Miss Turnstiles. His theft of the placard and steadfast determination to find this Subway Queen-of-the-Month (the winning Deanna Doyle) drive the action as the three try to find a “frail, flower-like girl who likes shotput” who is studying opera but is having to earn her living belly dancing on Coney Island.
The other two young couples are different but equally comic. The enthusiastic, hyper-organized tourist Chip (a skinny, kinetic Jay Armstrong Johnson) finds himself hijacked by Hildy the Cab Driver (played by voluptuous and agile Alysha Umphress). The characters Comden and Green wrote for themselves to play—sailor Ozzie who blunders into the Dinosaur Hall in the Museum of Natural History thinking it is the Museum of Modern Art and anthropology professor Claire de Loone—are played by the versatile and compelling Clyde Alves and Elizabeth Stanley. These actors not only deliver their ironic lines with intelligent aplomb (“I’m writing a book. Modern Man: what is it?”), they sing and dance while they do so, as though they were having the time of their lives.
Did I mention that, despite its brilliant script, this is primarily a dance show? Choreographer Joshua Bergasse (the Emmy-Award winning director of HBO’s Smash) and Tony Award-winning director Rando worked together last year on BSC’s production of Guys and Dolls, and their collaboration once again exudes an incandescent flow. The dances, like the comedy, manage to evoke the period and yet skirt cliché.
The dancers are wonderful and beautifully costumed in vivid colors by Jennifer Caprio. The lighting design is immensely pleasing: there’s not a moment that you want to let your eyes turn away from the the feast served up on stage. While the economics of the contemporary theater no longer allow for a full orchestra, music director Darren R. Cohen and sound designer Ed Chapman provide a more than adequate substitute: Bernstein’s score, with its anticipation of musical ideas elaborated a decade later in Candide and West Side Story, is played by a 10-piece band.
What fun! I’m so glad to have seen this hard-to-get-right musical in such a lovely, lusty, and lithe production. See it before it disappears!