Leonard Bernstein’s score for the classic wartime musical On the Town is some of the most glorious music ever crafted for the stage, and the new Broadway revival luxuriates in Joshua Bergasse’s sparkling Jerome Robbins-inspired choreography. John Rando directs a powerful cast headed by Tony Yazbek (Chicago, Gypsy) as Gabey, one of three sailors on an eventful 24-hour shore leave in New York City.
If you know On the Town only from the 1949 movie with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, the 1942 Broadway musical on which it was based will be an eye-opener. Almost all Bernstein’s music was excised for the film version, which, for that reason and others, ended up a completely different animal.
The musical is Broadway through and through. Yet in certain respects no show since has ever quite matched it. Yes, it has memorable songs – “New York, New York” of course, plus “Lonely Town,” “Some Other Time,” and “Lucky to Be Me,” and the boisterous “I Can Cook Too” and “Come Up to My Place.” But it’s also got extended ballet-inflected dance numbers of a type unique to this show, all driven by a score full of odd time signatures and surprising rhythms that nonetheless kept me rapt and smiling, here played by the biggest orchestra on Broadway – another risky investment but one that makes this show sound better than anything else on the Great White Way.
And the cast has voices to match, not just Yazbek and his cohorts Jay Armstrong Johnson as Chip and Clyde Alves as Ozzie, but also Elizabeth Stanley as a comically uptight Claire De Loone, Alysha Umphress as a Hildy who gracefully stops short of going over the top, and a hilarious Jackie Hoffman as the boozing singing teacher trying to help “Miss Turnstiles” Ivy Smith, played with poise and scrappy charm by New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Megan Fairchild, realize her dream of stardom. Reflecting the show’s wartime milieu but also looking ahead to more egalitarian times, all the main female characters are working women – anthropologist, taxi driver, voice coach, and in Ivy’s case, cooch dancer. The original production broke color barriers too, as Harvard scholar Carol J. Oja described in her recent book Bernstein Meets Broadway. “When Bernstein, Comden, Green, and Robbins created On the Town in 1944,” Oja writes, “they were twenty-somethings who ended up as BFFs. Their audacious talent was breathtaking. The first production of On the Town – appearing towards the end of World War II – marked an important moment in the long march for civil rights in performance.”
Fabulously varied and colorful costumes, evocative and inventive New York City sets, and elegant lighting help round out Rando’s vision of this legendary show, which in today’s terms combines old-fashioned theatrical razzle-dazzle with 20th-century musical modernism. It documents a moment when popular and classical music, ballet and hoofing, could coexist not just in the same city but on the same stage. It offers that vision even today.
I submit this mid-run review because it would be a shame for any lover of great entertainment to miss a production that has everything Broadway musicals at their very best can be. Because the producers took a chance on booking the huge Lyric Theater and it isn’t filling up, ticket discounts are on offer, so you can likely find a bargain. It’s too soon to know whether the gods of the stage will ultimately smile on the production and grant it a long run, but I don’t think things are looking too rosy, so grab your chance and see it now.