Oct 16, 2014
The first character we meet in the gorgeous new Broadway revival of On the Town ( three out of four stars) is an unnamed workman in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, played by the mighty-voiced Phillip Boykin. Boykin appears in the aisles, as other performers will, leading the audience in The Star-Spangled Banner, then seguing into a vigorous but plaintive reading of the opening song, I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet.
It’s a hint that this Town, which opened Thursday at the Lyric Theatre, may not prove as shiny a romp as the 1949 film adaptation, which featured star turns by Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra but ditched some of the more moving, sensual music that Leonard Bernstein had composed for the musical.
Instead, director John Rando, choreographer Joshua Bergasse and music director James Moore have mined the show — based on original choreographer Jerome Robbins’ Bernstein-scored ballet Fancy Free, with a book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green — for all its raw poignance, without sacrificing any of its jazzy wit or exuberant romanticism.
The result is a portrait of Town ‘s primary subjects, New York City and young love, that will leave you both exhilarated and haunted. Sailors Gabey, Ozzie and Chip kick off their 24-hour leave as giddily as ever, resolving to find “Miss Turnstiles,” the young woman whose face — plastered on a subway poster — instantly captures Gabey’s heart.
Gabey manages to locate the girl, named Ivy, but not before Chip and Ozzie land their own prospects: Hildy, a feisty, recently unemployed cab driver, and Claire, an aspiring anthropologist whose air of snobbish cool conceals — barely — a wild side.
The superb cast has great fun with the adventures in courtship. Alysha Umphress’ brassy-adorable Hildy gives Jay Armstrong Johnson’s charmingly goofy Chip an acrobatic workout in a bumpy ride through Manhattan, then secures her catch strutting through the witty double entendre of I Can Cook Too.
A more elaborate production number finds New York City Ballet principal Megan Fairchild, making a delightful Broadway debut as Ivy, and character actress/comedian Jackie Hoffman — hilarious as Ivy’s conniving singing teacher, and other assorted eccentrics — twirling together like mad schoolgirls.
Bergasse’s routines, even at their most irresistibly dizzy, reflect Robbins’ emphasis on storytelling and expression of character. This is especially crucial in the ballet sequences, showcases for Fairchild — and the hyper-talented Tony Yazbeck, who plays Gabey — that grow darker and more emotionally rich as the production spins toward its surprisingly unsettling, riveting climax and bittersweet conclusion.
Beowulf Boritt’s playful, imaginative scenic and projection design and Jason Lyons’ vivid lighting deserve mention as well. The New York they create is mythical and old-fashioned but, like the flawed, yearning characters who sometimes wander among us, strangely familiar and accessible.
Great musical theater doesn’t require total escapism, after all, any more than unconditional happy endings.