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On The Town by Elyse Sommer
Annotated Song List
New York is indeed "a helluva town."" Too bad it's currently well on its way to becoming a town where you can have a helluva time trying to find a new, innovative musical. Unless you want to tag Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake as a musical, the only new one on the New York horizon in the not too distant future will be Parade. In the meantime there's Footloose a stated retread of a so-so movie and Little Me an enjoyable minor musical remake of an enjoyable minor musical.
To bring things up to date we now have the director who has given us the highly original Bring In Da Noise Bring In Da Funk and Jelly's Last Jam turning nostalgic with On the Town. True, he has staged it with many savvy new touches and his trademark multicultural "now" look. But the fact remains that we're once again being offered an old and familiar flavor instead of an opportunity to enjoy the excitement of something brand new.
My consternation about this steady diet of golden (sometimes more brass than gold) oldies notwithstanding, the Comden and Green and Bernstein's symphony textured score, especially "New York, New York" remains the stuff of musical magic.. Furthermore, our razzle-dazzle city, remains the undisputed star of this first of a trio of New York musicals by Comden and Green (Wonderful Town, 1953, again with music by Leonard Bernstein and The Bells Are Ringing, 1956, with music by Jules Styne). As in the original 1944 production, there are no big name performers to draw people to the box office, though a number of the key players have already proved themselves during a much praised stint in Central Park two summers ago.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Robert Montano and Perry Layton Ojeda are an amiable trio of sailors. Lea DeLaria as Hildy, a plumper than pleasing taxi driver who knows more than a thing or two about scatting, Sarah Knowlton as Claire DeLoone, an archeologist who is easily "Carried Away" and Tai Jimenez as Ivy Smith, a.k.a. Miss Turnstiles, are just the girls about town to turn their 24-hour leave into a frantic romance-chasing romp. To add some comedic subtext, there's Ivy's eccentric voice teacher Madame Maude P. Dilly (Mary Testa), Hildy's sad-sack roommate Lucy Schmeeler (Annie Golden), and Claire's sappy fiance Pitkin W. Bridgework (Jonathan Freeman). It's not much of a story, just enough to show off all the attractions that made New York circa 1944 "New York, New York, a visitors place/ Where no one lives on account of the pace,/ But seven millions are screaming for space."
Adrianne Lobel's set, gorgeously lit by Paul Gallo, recreates that World War II era when New York City teemed with sailors from anywhere U.S.A. looking to pack their leaves with big city romance and adventure. The Brooklyn Bridge which conveniently houses the orchestra overarches the ever shifting cityscapes. It starts at the gate of the Brooklyn Navy Yard (now an industrial park) from which the sailors embark on their leave. On the subway to Manhattan Gabey (Perry Laylon Ojedo) falls in love with Miss Turnstile's (Tai Jiminez) picture (a reminder to old-time subway riders of the long-popular Miss Subways posters). The three sailors split up in order to track her down. Chip (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) finds himself a passenger in Hildy's (Lea DeLaria) cab. Ozzie (Robert Montano) hooks up with Claire DeLoone at the dinosaur exhibit of the Museum of Natural History. And Gabey actually finds her at the Carnegie Hall where the poster biography says she is studying voice.
Unlike some of our more operatic modern musicals, On the Town is a real dancing show which in fact had its genesis in Jerome Robbins-Leonard Bernstein ballet, "Fancy Free." The dances this time around are by a new-to-Broadway choreographer Keith Young who's best known for his film, tv and music video work . Not having been privy to the rehearsal process or at an early preview, it's hard to say how much of the choreography should be credited to Joey McKneely (the choreographer fromThe Life brought aboard very late in the game but without program attribution). Suffice it to say that many of the dances are very good, if somewhat repetitious. The Coney Island dream sequence in Act Two beautifully captures the frustration of Gabey and Ivy's finding-losing-finding each other romance.
And yet, for all the energy and talent, this revival dazzles only sporadically, leaving one with an odd feeling of having seen one of a pair of bookends eclipsed by the 1949 movie with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly that's become a video golden oldie. There isn't anyone thing to account for one's sense of being somewhat underwhelmed by that splendid bridge and those blinking skyscrapers and neonlit marquees.
The bridge really does fill the large Gershwin stage. However, when the Central Park scene makes do with a drop down projection of Belvedere Castle there's a feeling of ersatz that makes all who missed it (including this reviewer) wish they'd seen the show in its biggest and best of all environmental setting, the real Central Park. The choreography is not Jerome Robbins, but it's not awful and as already stated has many good moments. Paul Tazewell's costumes also have lots of pizazz but again there are a few disappointments: The sailor pants are without the buttons or sweeping bell bottoms that would give them real authenticity. There's also Lea DeLaria's taxi driver outfit which fails to make instant visual impact of the original one worn by Nancy Walker (a taxi-yellow pedal pusher suit with black and white checkered blouse featured in every photo record of the original show). While DeLaria's taxi is a snazzy yellow cab front and she still gets to wear a yellow suit, there isn't so much as a checkerboard button or lapel or band for her cap and her blouse is a rather drab and ordinary print. Fortunately she is such a strong performer that this is more flaw than fatal error. The three pivotal characters, the sailors, all have charm, with Perry Laylon Ojeda as the love-struck Gabey bringing particular sensitivy to his part. In the supporting roles Mary Testa, an actress whose work I admired enormously in New Brain and the nonmusical From Above (see links) once again delivers the goods with her larger-than-life Madame Dilly. Her counterpart in the secondary role department, Jonathan Freeman, is fine as the judge who finally refuses to keep singing "I Understand." (He had even more opportunity to strut his comic talents last summer in a wonderful new farce, An Empty Plate in the Caf? du Grand Boeuf -- see link)
From browsing through the illustrated anthology of Comden and Green's New York plays (see link), it's clear that some of the nicest routines are part of this production's updates -- notably the mood-setting solo during the opening and the Saks Fifth Avenue window mannequins and Natural History Museum diorama figures who spring to dancing life.
On a final quibbling note, the Public Theater organization usually provides highly informative program notes. Since this is a show that might well attract families with sub-teen and teen aged children and well as foreign tourists, it would be nice if this program included some background on New York during World War II, with some facts about gone or greatly changed places like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Coney Island, Nedicks, night spots like the Congacabana ( a blend of the Cocabana and the Latin Quarter owned by Lou Walters the father of Barbara), and the Miss Subways contests.
LINKS TO OTHER SHOWS MENTIONED
An Empty Plate in the Caf? du Grand Boeuf