‘On the Town’ is off the charts
Dance is king in Broadway’s hottest show — but the staging, costumes and action will knock you off your feet as well
The current Broadway revival of On the Town, now playing at the Lyric Theater on 42nd Street, will give you a taste of the Big Apple that will likely linger on your palette for some time to come. This two and one-half hour production is sheer joy from start to finish — with sparkling sets and costumes, spunky dance numbers and a clearly inspired 28-piece orchestra (the largest on Broadway, I am told).
Add to the mix Leonard Bernstein’s richly syncopated swing-style jazz and you’ll be dancing in the streets of New York. (Okay, that may not be such a good idea.)
If you think you’re already familiar with On the Town from the 1949 film with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin, think again. With the exception of the signature tune New York, New York, the MGM adaptation of the original 1944 Broadway production replaced all of Bernstein’s music with newly composed (and in my opinion, inferior) music by Roger Edens. Bernstein’s score, though perhaps a bit dated, springs to life when tethered to the ‘40s setting of this fast-paced adventure about three sailors cramming the “New York experience” into a wild, 24-hour period.
But there’s more than just the music to embrace in this opulent Broadway revival led by director John Rando and choreographer Joshua Bergasse.
The stage action is fast-paced and handsomely surrounded by colorful sets that morph quickly to evoke the changing New York landscape. Scenic and Projection Designer Beowulf Boritt evokes a number of iconic images, including the Statue of Liberty (with the Staten Island Ferry passing by), Brooklyn Navy Yard, Coney Island Ferris wheel and Museum of Modern History (complete with an imposing dinosaur skeleton). The hustle-and-bustle of life in the big city is further enhanced by a series of animated images projected against a backdrop, which does wonders for the staging of crowded subway rides and reckless cab trips through Manhattan. Between the changing of sets there are lots of sight gags, as well.
Bergasse’s over-the-top dance routines keep all eyes glued to the stage. Among the spectacular sequences in the opening act are Gabey’s Comin’ scene, where mannequins at Macy’s “awaken” to dance with the sailors, and the Presentation of Miss Turnstiles number with Megan Fairchild and a troupe of male dancers dressed as football players. The first act comes to a dazzling close with the Times Square Ballet.
The tender second act pas de deux, which captures the intimacy and lyricism of a Tchaikovsky ballet, is preceded by Gabey’s opulent Imaginary Coney Island dream sequence — a number that sparkles in sync with the men’s white tails and ladies’ creamy satin gowns, set under chandeliers to the purple and violet hues of Lighting Director Jason Lyons.
The plot of On the Town follows the adventures of three sailors on shore leave looking for a good time in New York. Led by Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), the wide-eyed triumvirate comes ashore at 6 a.m., hoping to experience the sights (and possibly some romance) before retiring to the docks the next morning. While on the subway, Gabey sees a poster of the new “Miss Turnstiles” (Ivy Smith, played by Megan Fairchild), and decides to spend his day looking for her. Gabey’s buddies Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and Ozzie (Clyde Alves) pledge to help, and the three agree to split up to scour different parts of the city in an effort to locate the poster girl.
The romances then begin in earnest. Chip gets picked up (literally and figuratively) by female cab driver, Hildy (Alysha Umphress). The cab’s first and only stop is Hildy’s apartment. Meanwhile, Ozzie sets out for the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art but ends up instead at the Museum of Natural History. This turns out to be serendipitous, as he meets and hooks up with Claire de Loone (Elizabeth Stanley). That leaves Gabey, who walks across Manhattan to Carnegie Hall hoping to encounter Miss Turnstiles at her next voice lesson.
The rest is just show business. Indeed, dancing trumps all else in this production, relegating the storyline to little more than a choreographed version of Sex in the City.
As the newly crowned “Miss Turnstiles,” Megan Fairchild — in her Broadway debut as Ivy Smith — gets the lion’s share of the dance numbers in this production, both classical and popular. Little surprise, then, that Fairchild is a principal dancer with New York City Ballet. Fairchild’s good looks and athletic frame lend credibility to her persona as Gabey’s love interest. And she can act, too.
Choreographer Joshua Bergasse makes good use of Fairchild’s elastic flexibility and athleticism, particularly in the classically oriented numbers, such as the poignant second act pas de deux. Fairchild may not sing like a nightingale just yet, but she does manage to negotiate the number Do do re do while standing on her head.
As the three sailors, Yazbeck, Alves and Johnson forged a bond as a likeable band of brothers and quickly endeared themselves to the audience. They blended well in ensemble numbers such as New York, New York and danced with pizzazz. Amazingly, after 24 hours of travelling, dancing and lovemaking in New York none of them got so much as a speck of dirt on their lily white outfits.
Of the three, Yazbeck gets to do most of the singing, and he produced a handsome effort in Lucky to Be Me. His character’s songs are more demanding than the other male roles, though, and Yazbeck’s voice began to show some signs of fatigue (one of the consequences of keeping the same cast of principals in a long-running show). His touching Lonely Town nevertheless sounded quite lovely.
Among the female roles, Elizabeth Stanley’s voice stands out as the most classically trained, and the refined quality of her vocal timbre puts her somewhat at a distance from the other female singers. Stanley, who holds a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance and musical theater from Indiana University, was impressive in her big number, Carried Away, with a firm command of the high notes.
Alysha Umphress fashioned a hilarious character in Hildy, and the jazz inflections in her singing fit the bill for this role. Umphress delivered her two big numbers, Come Up to My Place (sung in the cab) and I Can Cook Too (sung at her apartment), with comedic flair and lots of gusto.
The best singing of the evening came from Phillip Boykin, whose deeply resonant and imposing baritone is immediately evident in the opening number, when he takes his place onstage to lead the shipyard workers in I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet.
Boykin performed the role of Crown in the reworked Broadway version of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, for which he received a Tony Award nomination. The South Carolina native plays multiple roles in the present production, including the (presumably) gay Turnstile Announcer and the quick-tongued Disney Coney Island Master of Ceremonies show, Rajah Bimmy. Whichever role he is playing, Boykin takes full command of the stage.
Like Boykin, Julie Halston forges a commanding presence that places her front and center of the action. The veteran Broadway actress, familiar to many for her role as Bitsy von Muffling in Sex and the City, is new to the production, replacing Jackie Hoffman.
Halston all but steals the show in her principal role as Madame Dilly — the washed-up, dipsomaniac vocal coach to Ivy. Sharing a wistful memory during Ivy’s lesson, Dilly opens up and tells the girl about her former singing career in Europe.
“You know, I was a great singer before being forced to leave by those nasty people.”
“The Germans?” asks Ivy.
“No, the audiences.”
As the deadpan cabaret lounge singer Diana Dream, Halston delivers a depressingly dour I Wish I Was Dead, sung without vibrato in intentionally bad vocal form (as dead, perhaps, as the subjunctive case in the song’s title). Later, she reprises the dour cabaret singer persona as Dolores Dolores — this time dressed in a Chiquita Banana outfit. Each time I saw her I grew increasingly giddy. Like Carol Burnett, Halston has the right balance of facial expressions, arm gestures and body movement to deliver the kitsch and capture the laughs.
A first-rate pit orchestra under the direction Music Coordinator John Miller was thoroughly immersed in Bernstein’s score. The ensemble tackled the composer’s syncopations and hemiolas in the second act Subway Ride and Imaginary Coney Island numbers — the snappiest music of the score — with a level of comfort expected from New York’s finest freelancers.
And that pretty much describes the sum total experience of this Broadway revival: It’s everything you’d expect from New York’s finest.
What: On the Town, music by Leonard Bernstein; book/lyrics by Betty Comdon and Adolph Green
Artistic staff: Directed by John Rando, choreography by Joshua Bergasse
Where: The Lyric Theater (formerly Foxwoods Theatre)
Broadway opening: Oct. 16, 2014
Performance reviewed: Mar. 18, 2015
Remaining performances: Open run
Length: About two hours and 35 minutes
Tickets: $145 and under
Pit orchestra: 28 players (largest orchestra on Broadway) directed by James Moore