Saturday, 20 December 2014

ON THE TOWN at the Lyric Theatre

     This is the fifth revival of ON THE TOWN I have seen and the only one that totally works. There was one in the early 1970s directed and choreographed by Ron Field with Bernadette Peters as Hildy, the horny cab driver and Phyllis Newman as the equally horny anthropologist. That one suffered from the problem that besets many choreographers. ON THE TOWN is a dance show with a series of long dance numbers, one dream ballet after another. The original production was a vehicle for the young choreographic genius Jerome Robbins. Ron Field was no Jerome Robbins and the extended dance numbers kept repeating the same steps. Nor did he really have a take on the dated comic book scenes. The next revival in the 1990s, directed by George C. Wolfe was a general mess. About ten years ago the English National Opera mounted a revival in London. Stephen Mears' choreography was food and the principals were all fine, but the production looked cheap and the book scenes needed better pacing. About five years ago the Paper Mill Playhouse revived the show -- the best production I have seen until this one. The score to ON THE TOWN by the young Leonard Bernstein is brilliant. As everyone knows, the MGM film contains few of the original songs -- the powers that be at the studio thought the score too difficult.  the lyrics (Betty Comden andAdolph Green) better in the comic songs than in the ballads. The challenge of producing the show is that the humor is a bit dated and heavy-handed for audience who have lived through sixty plus years of television sitcoms. It takes a very good director and a cast of inventive comic performers to make the long comic scenes work. They can seem to go on forever, particularly when you've seen them a number of times before. It's also a little hard to believe that sailors, even in 1944, were as innocent and virginal as the three central characters of ON THE TOWN.
     ON THE TOWN began as a ballet, FANCY FREE, choreographed by Jerome Robbins to music by Leonard Bernstein. The ballet was such a success that the two, joined by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, decided to turn it into a musical. The story is simple. Three sailors are on twenty-four hour shore leave in New York CIty. Gaby (Tony Yazbeck) falls in love with the picture of Miss Turnstiles (Megan Fairchild) and decides to hunt for her. His friends Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and Ozzie (understudy Cory Lingner at my performance) decide to join in the search but get waylaid; Chip by an anthropologist (Elizabeth Stanley) and Ozzie by a cab driver (Alysha Umphress). A good time is had by all. On this simple story hangs a gorgeous score.
     This production of ON THE TOWN, directed by John Rando and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, is not only the best production of ON THE TOWN I have seen. It is also one of the best revivals of any musical I have seen. Through clever stylized movement, fine casting and excellent pacing, John Rando makes even the book scenes click. That's no easy feat with this show. I could say that even the book scenes seem to dance. The musical staging is constantly inventive and thrilling. The three sailors sing, dance and act brilliantly. From the second row Tony Yazbeck seems a bit too old for the role of Gaby, particularly when twenty-three year old Cory Lingner is playing Ozzie. Lingner has the right callow look for a young sailor. Yazbeck has a lovely singing voice. New York City Ballet prima ballerina Megan Fairchild dances beautifully (of course). Junoesque Alysha Umphress is a fine singer and comic as is Elizabeth Stanley. Jackie Hoffman is hilarious in four character parts. Beowulf Borritt's sets are beautiful as are Jess Goldstein's costumes. The ensemble dances up a storm and a thirty-plus piece orchestra plays the Bernstein score superbly.
     This ON THE TOWN deserves the critical raves it has received. The audience clearly loved it.
ON THE TOWN. Lyric Theatre. December 19, 2014.  

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