On The Town
29 October 2014
What must it have been like to have been a theatregoer on Broadway in 1944? Before Oklahoma changed everything? What were the reigning expectations? What was more important? Director? Author? Composer? Music? Book? Choreography? Stars? When the auditorium went dark, what mattered most?
These questions don't come up often these days, as audience expectations have changed in the 70 years since Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green collaborated on the musical On The Town but the revival of that show, directed by John Rando and choreographed by the dazzling Joshua Bergasse, and now playing at the Lyric Theatre on Broadway raises them squarely.
And answers them.
It seemed bizarre when the orchestra struck up The Star-Spangled Banner and the audience leapt to its feet, in front of the American flag which was stretched across the proscenium, hands clutched to their left breast, singing along, proudly, badly, to their national anthem. But, actually, it was inspired.
Whatever way you look at it, On The Town is a celebration of America, particularly New York, and its central characters, three able bodied, red blooded sailors, are the personification of US patriotism. Playing the National Anthem is an excellent way to set the scene, to establish a sense of the past, the period in which the musical is set, as well as underlying the essential, escapist, and idealised notion of freedom, opportunity and optimism which lies at the heart of the piece.
The book is not intricate but it is sufficient and full of comedic opportunities. Three mates are on 24 hour shore leave from their Navy assignment. They want to explore New York, see the sights and find girls. On the subway, one of the three, Gabey sees a girl who has won a Miss Turnstiles competition and wants to meet her. The three split up to try to track her down. The story of their mis-adventures fuels the rest of the plot.
But it is not the narrative which is the driving force here. It's the characters and the music and, most importantly, the dancing, which relies upon the characters and the music for its purpose and drive. This is more a dance show than West Side Story; it has a dream ballet sequence too. And it's the dancing which is key to both the startling, vital success of this revival and to understanding the very nature and intent of the show.
The dancing has a style, a language of its own and, certainly as choreographed by Bergasse, is more articulate than pages of dialogue. The steps are tricky, pulsing with purpose and bursting with energy and style. Very balletic, but with that jazzy Broadway edge which is just thrilling to watch especially where, as here, the cast is perfectly drilled, perfectly in sync and perfectly dazzling. Such vigour, such line, such expressive physicality.
The show features extended dance sequences which reflect the hustle and bustle of New York as well as setting up various scenes – and there is a long, absolutely rapturous dream ballet in Act Two where the lovesick Gabey imagines finding his girl among the toffs on Coney Island. It's quite magical. Anyone who thought the dream ballet was dead in modern musical theatre might need to reconsider after Bergasse's swirling, imaginative work here.
Above all else, the dancing is sexy, cheeky and, irrepressibly, fun. And the dream cast work it wonderfully.
Tony Yazbeck is Gabey, all virile, hopeful suitor, brave at sea (he saved his mates lives) but shy and awkward around women. He is sensational. His rendition of Lonely Town is achingly heartfelt and the excitement he brings (aided by his co-stars) to New York, New York electric. He is a triple threat to the power of ten. His dancing is superb – feisty, romantic, captivating – and his work in the dream ballet sequence astonishing.
As his two best pals, Jay Armstrong Johnson (Chip) and Clyde Alves (Ozzie) match Yazbeck every step of the triple-threat way. Johnson's Chip is a perfect portrait of the dim, family loving lad excited by the trip, trying to see all the sights but using an out of date guide book. He is beautifully simple, handsome and utterly charming, attacking every scene with gusto. He is especially remarkable in Come Up To My Place where he sings, essentially, a patter song while tumbling and performing acrobatics which are genuinely surprising and funny.
Alves' Ozzie is a pitch-perfect portrait of that assured sex-crazy guy who, when it comes to it, is a romantic at heart. He is very funny, comfortable in his own (considerable) manly charms and unafraid to embrace his inner show-off. His work in Carried Away is delicious.
Alysha Umphress can sing, act, ooze sex appeal and dance – and, boy, she can cook too. Umphress is a memorable, marvelous Hildy – she takes on the role full throttle and absolutely triumphs. She and Johnson are dynamite together and milk every moment for sexy laughs and perfect joy.
Elizabeth Stanley takes the role of Claire and shakes, shimmies and sings it to life in an extraordinary full-throttle performance. Her gutsy, high soprano belt is astonishing, smashing through the huge Lyric auditorium like a vocal volcano. And her acting and dancing is seductive and addictive, not just on Alves but all in the audience.
This quartet, thriving on chance, lust and unmitigated pleasure, bring the house down with Ya Got Me, a number staged with precise sexual enthusiasm and performed with unabashed glee and that sense of unity which only comes from a combination of skill, trust and absolute commitment. And they use those same skills to create a whirlpool of emotion and regret for Some Other Time. Pure gold.
As Gabey's dream girl, Megan Fairchild is, well, dreamy. Her dancing is exquisite in absolutely every respect, breath-taking and exemplary. She sings sweetly and perfectly conveys the conflicting emotions of this ordinary girl with dreams and debts, forced to sacrifice a chance at love against her will. The moment where she and Gabey finally get together is as powerful a theatrical moment as the second in West Side Story when Tony first spots Maria. Exhilarating.
There are no words to describe the many outrageous laughs Jackie Hoffman elicits from the range of “older” lady roles she plays. She is unmitigatingly hilarious, often surprisingly so. Her faux Carmen Miranda number (complete with hunky aides carrying huge bananas) and it's slow-peel epilogue is absolute genius; as is the moment when the dipsomaniac Miss Dilly is so drunk and disoriented that she can't find her way through the wings. Hoffman is the Oracle of Schtick.
There are great cameos from Philip Boykin (stunning bass voice), Michael Rupert (a nice turn as a stuffy, idiot Judge) and Alison Gunn (who sneezes the show's improbable resolution with aplomb). The ensemble are absolutely terrific, in every way, and cover a wide range of New York “types” and racial groups. The multicultural melting pot that is Manhattan shines in all it's assorted and all-embracing glory.
James Moore' musical direction is excellent; the large and capable orchestra gives full brassy and radiant value to Bernstein's exciting and melodious score. The brass section, in particular, were full bloodied, seething with style and clarity. Brett Rowe conducted the performance with assurance and aplomb.
Beowulf Borritt provides a terrific set which immensely aids the comic book feel of the narrative and adds colour and an effective, ever changing kaleidoscope of locations for the hunt the three leads go on. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are excellent, period perfect and totally in sync with the characters and the sense of the staging. Every aspect of the design here, including Jason Lyons' magnificent lighting, ensures that everything and everyone looks wonderful, the fairy tale aspects front and centre.
Some of the staging is out there (I particularly liked the almost surreal scene with the cavemen and the dancing dinosaur skeleton) but it all works splendidly – the great dock with the Navy ship, the taxi ride through the city, the series of dire nightclubs and the magical evocation of Coney Island, all done with style and careful thought.
The final moments of this production are laced with heartache. The three sets of lovers part, probably never to see each other again. The 24 hours of shore leave is up and the magic of New York fizzles away into memory and sadness. It is quite affecting.
Then three new sailors burst down the gay plank and start singing New York, New York again, showing that the wheel turns constantly and that, after all, hope is eternal.
This is just a thrilling reimagining of a work that has never really achieved great success despite the pedigree of its creators. John Rando and Joshua Bergasse have found a clever, fresh and invigorating way to breathe life into a difficult piece, and the sunshine and joy they have shone on the material, not the least by spot on casting, creates a splendid theatrical event. Old fashioned musical theatre in a modern, quirky and utterly entertaining form.