Twenty-four hours can go so fast…
On the Town is an odd beast. It follows three sailors in 1944 (the year of the musical’s original production) on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City. One sailor, Ozzie, wants get laid. One sailor, Chip, wants to see all the famous sites. One sailor, Gabey, sees a picture of Miss Turnstiles on subway, falls instantly in love, wants find her. How the musical is constructed, though, and how much it is a work of its time makes it not the easiest musical to revive.
With character names like Brünnhilde Esterhazy and Claire de Lune, it’s clearly not a show you’re supposed to take all that seriously. Like many musicals, especially of the period, it takes place in a stylized fantasyland where, honestly, the innate redemptive nature of American Musical Comedy may be the only reason why everything works out by the final curtain. Naturally, all three sailors find and pair up with their true loves within the twenty-hour hours of their shore leave. Not to do so would have been such the violation, the show probably would have flopped immediately. (It’s worth noting that two of On the Town‘s creators, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, would go on to create West Side Story, a musical that most definitely does not have a happy ending.)
On the other hand, what drives On the Town is the fact these three sailors are about to head off to war and may never return. In 1944, this subtext would have been impossible to ignore. “Some Other Time,” a quartet for two of the show’s couples near the end act two, is less four people who have engaged in one night stands searching for some polite way to say goodbye to each other and more four people desperately trying to convince themselves that there can be such a thing as “some other time” and with each other. In that context, the song is understated yet heartbreaking.
This careening back and forth between the daffy and the heartfelt is a tough thing to get right. On one hand, you have to get your laughs. The characters and the situations they find themselves in are, like Beowulf Boritt’s witty sets, outsized and slightly askew. They demand to be played for their comic value. On the other hand, moments like, Gabey’s “boy loses girl” near the end of act one need to be played for their emotional weight. The relationships are threads that hold the musical together. If they can’t be taken seriously, the show falls apart. The Broadway revival still in previews at the Lyric Theater comes awfully close to doing this perfectly.
This revival is based on a 2013 Barrington Stage Company production directed by John Rando and starring Tony Yazbeck as Gabey. It features most of the principle cast and creative team, including John Rando and Tony Yazbeck. The Barrington Stage Company, in turn, may have been inspired by a 2009 Encores! concert production of the show also directed by John Rando and starring Tony Yazbeck as Gabey. I saw the Encores! production, but only video clips of Barrington Stage Company production.
Of course, the production has received some upgrades for Broadway. The set now has these big, witty animated backdrops that augment the wide, open spaces aesthetics of the set. The pit now has 28 players. This revival uses the show’s original orchestrations (as did the Encores! production). In these days when we’re lucky to get 12 players in the pit, 28 is enormous and it sounds wonderful. It’s not often these days that you get to hear a string section balance off the rest of the pit as opposed to individual strings used as a special effect.
The leads are all well-cast, especially the three sailors. Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves nail their laughs and have great chemistry with their counterparts, Alysha Umphress as Hildy and Elizabeth Stanley as Claire. The show more or less sets up its Hildy as she has the two up-tempo numbers everyone remembers, “Come Up to My Place” and “I Can Cook Too.” However, everyone gets their moments and they all do jaw-droppingly well by them. In particular, Jay Armstrong Johnson executes some impressive and highly athletic choreography during “Come Up to My Place.” The song takes place in a cab and he flip over the seat, crashes into the windshield, and, at one point, holds himself parallel to the floor, as though he’s holding on to the speeding cab for dear life.
Tony Yazbeck, as Gabey, is the reason for this production. He sings, he acts, he dances. There is nothing this man cannot do brilliantly. He sings the lead tenor in the gorgeous chorale version of “Lonely Town” near the end of act one. (This requires notes that he does not need for the rest of the show. One has to wonder whether a chorus tenor might sung that line in the original production.) He does much more dancing than most actors cast as Gabey usually do. He dances for himself in the big act two dream ballet. Traditionally, there is a “Dream Gabey” who takes over. Actually, all three sailors dance more than they do in most other production, but Tony Yazbeck gets the lion’s share. (Also, he takes shirt off during his during his Pas de Deux towards the end of act two. The sight of a shirtless Tony Yazbeck may be worth the price of the ticket by itself…)
His counterpart, Megan Fairchild as Ivy Smith aka Miss Turnstiles, is a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. Most of her work is in the show’s many dance sequences and she’s terrific in them. Her acting and singing is fine. However, the show doesn’t ask for much acting or singing from Ivy Smith. As such, Megan Fairchild is fine, perhaps near ideal, casting.
The choreography is pretty amazing. Joshua Bergasse asks his dancers to do some highly athletic stuff and they come through dazzlingly. On the Town is a show that tells its story through many dance sequences as well as speech and song. On balance, the choreography does the job extremely well.
On one hand, I wonder if it’s possible for the choreography to be too showy. E.g., Michael Rupert as Pitkin and Allison Guinn have some rather tortured and excessively physical choreography for his big number, “I Understand.” Then again, the song is not exactly the best thing Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, or Adolph Green has written. I have to wonder if maybe this creative team thought the song needed as much help as it could get. It’s hard to disagree with that.
On the other hand, I think it come through with wit, romance, and heartbreak in all the places where the show needs them. The “Presentation of Miss Turnstiles” is creative and funny. The Pas de Deux that follows “Lonely Town” evokes Gabey’s heartache purely and sincerely. As the show veers from ridiculous to sublime and back again, the choreography follows unfailingly.
John Rando really gets the show. At first, I had my doubts. The show starts, as any Broadway show would have during WWII, with the playing of the national anthem. Of course, this inevitably leads to everyone standing and singing. Yes, any modern production of On the Town absolutely needs something to get you back to 1944. This is an important part of the worldbuilding. As mentioned above, parts of the show depend on the subtext that the country is at war and that whatever the sailors are doing, they may be doing it for the last time ever. However, I seriously doubt that the playing of the national anthem transported anyone back to 1944 (even with a 48 star US flag unfurled on stage). I understood what he was doing and even I felt untransported.
The direction gets way better after that though. He’s directed everyone (even those I’ haven’t mentioned yet) through the show’s sometimes tortuous mood shifts. The trick to the show is to create a world where you can both get the laughs and the sentiments, where you can both laugh at what is happen to the characters as well as feel for them. His direction and the performances are very nearly pitch perfect.
If I have a quibble (and I do), it’s with some of the schtick. Jackie Hoffman is genuinely funny as Madame Dilly. However, some of her schtick and those of others could be edited down and the show would be stronger for it. For me, they messed the pacing. In one case, it drew attention away from the emotional heart of the show in service of gag that felt extended beyond its natural length anyway. However, the audience also laughed… a lot.
It’s hard to imagine ever getting a better production of this classic of American Musical Comedy. It really does have it all. Terrific songs. Funny lines. Love, loss, and love again. I want this show to run and run and run. Realistically, On the Town is not very well-known and it’s possible that everyone interested in the show will have seen in the next few months.
I don’t know how long it’ll run, but catch it if you can. It’s awesome and may not be around the next time you have chance to catch a Broadway show. (Also, it’s in the mammoth Lyric Theater. Even if it does amazing box office, there will probably still be tickets available.)