I had my trepidations when the revival of the 1944 musical, On the Town, was announced for the current Broadway season. The 1998 production was listless and flat and closed after two months. My concerns with the current version were allayed as soon as the deep-throated singer, Phillip Boykin ambled down the aisle of the Lyric Theatre singing the plaintive “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet.” Up on the stage workers waited impatiently for the Brooklyn Shipyards to open for business at the 6:00 am hour. Suddenly, three sailors literally explode onto the stage from one of the docked naval vessels, a 24 hour shore leave in hand singing the Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green tune “New York, New York” and, for the next seven minutes or so, dancing to the muscular, athletically-inspired choreography of Jerome Robbins (in this production rendered by Joshua Bergasse).
So begins the raucously giddy production of On the Town as the three intrepid sailors hunt down love and adventure on the streets of New York City. Their mission is set slightly askew when, riding the subway, Ozzie (Tony Yazbeck) falls in love with a picture of the current Ms. Turnstiles. His compatriots put off their desires to help their friend transverse The Big Apple to locate his new soul mate. Along the way his buddies, Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson), gets tangled up with a sex-starved taxi cab driver and Ozzie (Clyde Alves) falls for a wacky female anthropologist. The story is silly, but moves the plot along from one great song to another and, more impressively, from one superior production number to the next, including one with a dancing T-Rex.
On the Town derives its delirious energy, its effervescent air from the combination of the ingratiating performances, what seems like non-stop dance numbers, the first-rate score, and even the vivid color palette of the scenic design. The three sailors, portrayed by Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson, and Clyde Alves, perfectly complement each other and have chemistry to spare as they pal around, together and separately, from the Bronx to The Battery, looking for love. Their hoofing skills are impressive and their singing abilities well-honed. Alysha Umphress, as the man hungry cabbie, Hildy, is a sparkplug of energy, toughness, and stamina. Elizabeth Stanley, as Claire, a seemingly strait-laced scientist studying man, is equal parts egghead and forlorn schoolgirl as she ponders her thesis over one of the girl mad sailors. Megan Fairchild, playing Ivy, Ms. Turnstiles for June, is a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet. Her dancing prowess is beyond question, but her stage presence in her speaking role is, shall we say, a work in progress.
The witty, and entertaining score by the triumvirate of Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green still seems fresh today, 70 years after the musical first opened. It includes such classics as “Come Up to My Place,” “Carried Away,” “I Can Cook, Too,” “Lucky to Be Me,” and “Some Other Time.” And that’s not including the opening “New York, New York.”
There is no mistake that the dance numbers in On the Town are an homage to Jerome Robbins, but choreographer Joshua Bergasse doesn’t just rely on strict recreations of the style that made Robbins such a force on Broadway. Bergasse adds his own flourishes and embellishments to produce a harmonious duality between the two dance maestros.
Director John Rando, not someone who immediately would come to mind for such a large-scale project, admirably takes all the various components of such a big, splashy enterprise and makes it work. The key is harmony, taking a spirited, care-free show and successfully balancing the extensive production numbers so the 2 ½ hour musical flows smoothly without unnecessary starts and fits.
The revival of On the Town, a good old-fashioned musical retrofitted for today’s discerning Broadway audiences.