Oct 16, 2014
When did you last see a big-budget musical that made you want to shout with joy? If you’ve been feeling anxious about the lukewarm state of American musical comedy, get ready to get hot again: The new Broadway revival of “On the Town” is everything a great show should be.
“On the Town,” in which Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jerome Robbins tell the tale of three wide-eyed sailors with just 24 hours to see New York for the first time, came to Broadway in 1944 and instantaneously made stars out of its prodigious creators (their average age on opening night was 27). But MGM botched the 1949 film version by scrapping most of Bernstein’s brash, bittersweet music, and “On the Town,” in part for that reason, has never had a commercially successful Broadway revival. As a result, it isn’t nearly as well known as the other major musicals of the ’40s and ’50s, meaning that Massachusetts’ Barrington Stage Company has taken a huge risk by transferring its 2013 revival to New York. Will it buck the odds and become a hit? I’m no producer, but anyone who isn’t thrilled by this tinglingly well-staged production needs a heart transplant.
Of all the important shows from the golden age of American musical comedy, “On the Town” most successfully blended frivolous ends with sophisticated means. Bernstein himself said that “the subject matter was light, but the show was serious,” and for all the screwball silliness of its cotton-candy plot, no one who saw “On the Town” could possibly ignore the dark shadow that World War II cast across the stage: Gabey, Chip and Ozzie (Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves) have only one day in which to find their true loves (Megan Fairchild, Alysha Umphress and Elizabeth Stanley) before they must sail off to war, and very possibly to their deaths. While we tend to think of Comden and Green as consummate light comedians, they were also up to the challenge of writing the heart-piercing lyrics for “Some Other Time,” in which the sailors and their girls remind one another of what each knows all too well: “When you’re in love / Time is precious stuff— / Even a lifetime isn’t enough.”
“On the Town,” in short, is far more than a piece of fancy fluff, and while John Rando, the director, is a recognized master of comic timing who could make a funeral funny, he never skimps on warmth. Neither does his cast, an appealing mixture of largely new and newish faces. Particularly noteworthy are Mr. Yazbeck, a graceful dancer who shows off his gleaming tenor voice in “Lonely Town” and “Lucky to Be Me,” and Ms. Umphress, who nails the plum part of Hildy, the lustful lady hackie who longs to boost Mr. Johnson out of her cab and into the sack. The biggest surprise, though, is Ms. Fairchild, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet who has never before played a speaking role. Who knew that she could act and sing so charmingly?
“On the Town,” like “West Side Story,” is a dance-driven show that cannot be properly staged without first-class choreography. Would that Robbins’s own dances had survived other than in fragments, but Joshua Bergasse’s brand-new choreography is so exuberant and imaginative that even dance buffs won’t stop to think twice about what might have been: Each step pulses with passionate life. Bernstein’s rhythmically challenging score is tossed off with highflying glee by the 28-piece pit band, conducted by James Moore. (Yes, those are the original 1944 orchestrations in all their unretouched glory, and boy, do they ever swing!) As for the chorus, every member flies across the stage with an electric authority that will send you spiraling into an orbit of delight the moment Mr. Moore gives the first downbeat.
Beowulf Boritt, who had a lot more money to play with on Broadway than in Massachusetts, has designed a shiny skyline set that’s even more spectacular than the one at Barrington Stage last year. It brings to entrancing life the half-imagined city of neon dreams that is the New York of “On the Town.” As for Jess Goldstein’s period costumes, they’re riotously colorful and wholly authentic-looking.
You will note the total absence of grudging qualifications. That’s because I haven’t any: This show is that good. To be sure, “On the Town” is one of the Broadway musicals that I love best, and I’ve been hoping to see a strong New York revival ever since New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse gave it the deluxe treatment in 2009. That production could have worked on Broadway, too, but Barrington Stage’s version was equally fine, and now that it’s here, I urge you to see it as soon as you possibly can.
With Broadway increasingly dominated by rubber-stamp commodity musicals, less familiar shows are a tough box-office sell, but “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” managed to ring the gong through sheer excellence last season. If there’s any justice at all, so will “On the Town.”