Monday, October 27, 2014

'On The Town': Glowing Revival of Iconic Musical and a Star Turn for Its Choreographer

A star is born and another is honored in spirit in the glowing first-rate revival of On The Town at the Lyric Theatre. 

To begin with there is, of course, Leonard Bernstein’s score and Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s lyrics – all pure gold. Pretty much anyone who is familiar with Broadway musical theater will recognize at least some of the songs: the jaunty I Can Cook, Too, the soulful Lonely Townthe wistful Some Other Time, and the quintessential ode to the Big Apple, New York, New York (a helluva town!). There is not a clunker in the bunch, a rather remarkable accomplishment given that this was the trio’s very first Broadway show.

Now a new star arrives with a bang as On The Town continues its tradition of “firsts.” This is Joshua Bergasse’s first Broadway stint as choreographer, and from the looks of things, he has the chops to rise to the top of the heap among his peers. He uses every number to tell a carefully crafted story, and while he graciously tips his hat to the 1944 musical’s original choreographer, the sublimely brilliant Jerome Robbins, he decidedly puts his own stamp on things. The second act’s outstanding ballet sequence, in particular, is beautifully staged and beautifully danced by two of the show’s stars, Tony Yazbeck and Megan Fairchild, who happens to be principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. 
On The Town takes a cue from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, which opened on Broadway the previous year, by starting not with an overture, but with a single singer. In this case, the singer is Phillip Boykin, who does a splendid job playing several supporting characters throughout the production. He gets the ball rolling with the sleepy early-morning work song, I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet, which he begins in his booming bass while approaching the stage from one of the aisles. As he sings, the lights get brighter onstage, marking the rising of the sun. The music then makes a jolting upturn in tempo, as three sailors come down the gangplank and launch into New York, New York. It’s a helluva way to start this wonderful musical, setting the tone as the city leaps headlong into action. 

Yazbeck plays Gabey, one of the triumvirate of sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City. He and his buddies, Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and Ozzie (Clyde Alves) are determined to make the most of their time, with the ultimate goal of hooking up with a willing gal before they have to return to their ship. It isn’t long before Chip meets up with Hildy (Alysha Umphress), a cabby who is determined to get him to forget about sightseeing and “come up to my place.”  Ozzie, too, quickly finds his partner in Claire (Elizabeth Stanley), a libidinous anthropologist. The two of them meet cute in the Museum of Natural History, where they launch into the brilliantly staged Carried Away, featuring, among other things, a dancing dinosaur skeleton. 

That leaves Gabey, who has set his sights on Ivy Smith (Ms. Fairchild), whose picture he spots on a poster of “Miss Turnstiles” in a promotional campaign for New York’s subway system. Will Gabey and Ivy get together? Will the guys avoid being arrested?  Need you ask?

There is truly little by way of a plot to On The Town. It’s basically a series of set pieces, each of which features one of the show’s marvelous songs. John Rando directs with a strong sense of style that captures both the silliness and the underlying sense of uncertainty and the preciousness of fleeing time felt by the characters during wartime. Ms. Umphress and Ms. Stanley bring a grand giddiness to their performances, and Mssrs. Yazbeck, Johnson, and Alves are full of charm and personality.  

Adding another level to the comic wackiness is Jackie Hoffman, who seems to have been given free rein to go over the top as she plays multiple parts, each nuttier than the previous ones.  My favorite is a bit about two different nightclub singers, each of whom starts to sing a torch song of miserable heartbreak until they are cut off by Gabey’s friends who are trying to cheer him up. 

Everything about the production works to sweep the audience into its embrace. Beowolf Boritt’s set and projection design are utter perfection, with a color scheme that seems inspired by all 133 Crayola crayons. And the full orchestra (so rare these days) under James Moore’s musical direction is a real joy to listen to. This revival of On The Town is a true gem, honoring a musical deserving of every bit of love that has been bestowed upon it.

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