On the Town, Book and Lyrics by Adolph Green and Betty Comden, music by Leonard Bernstein. Directed by John Rando. Choreography by Joshua Bergasse.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"You got a date with Lucy Schmeeler, girl of mystery!"
Imagine this: it is 1944, you’re a sailor en route to Europe with a 24-hour leave in New York City and you’ve never been there before. You have one day in which to cram every experience possible before you ship out to the war zone; you might never come back or you might return damaged, different and disillusioned. What you want most is to carry away with you a memory that will hold you in its thrall, protect you from harm or at least keep you out of the way of a bullet, shrapnel or the loose grenade. And you’d like it with music, please.
Comden and Green, Bernstein and Jerome Robbins put together "On the Town" to do all of the above. Based on the premise of three sailors on the town as described above, the latter two had devised the ballet "Fancy Free," which enjoyed a nice success. Adding the writing team of two comic actors, a full length musical show was developed along the same lines. And it was just what the war needed, a musical comedy that engaged the hearts and minds of the enlisted men as well as the safe-at-home theatergoers.
What the show did, most of all, was to provide a visual and aural experience akin to the real lives of the audience, one they could laugh at and, even though the possible inevitable is not mentioned in the script or songs, still find the tug of the heartstrings that most needed to express but couldn’t. In the song, "Some Other Time" four of the six principals express their regret at not having had the complete experience, reassuring one another that there will be another night, another day for them all. It was poignant then and remains so now—especially in the hands of the many talents that make this Barrington Stage Company edition of the show such a delight.
Not a show that has ever completely disappeared (the MGM film is fun, but Louis B. Mayer hated the Bernstein/Comden/Green score and discarded most of it along with the subtleties of the plot) it played for two years in the 1940s, was revived in the 50s at City Center, then again in 1971 and 1998 and was recorded live in 1992 in London in an all-star concert performance with Tyne Daly, Cleo Laine, Fredericka Von Stade, Evelyn Lear and Thomas Hampson. Its songs, "New York, New York," "Lonely Town," "Lucky To Be Me," "I Can Cook Too," and "Ya Got Me" are classics, so it surprised me when I saw this superb revival to hear a woman complain during the intermission that she couldn’t understand why this show is considered a great classic when there weren’t any great tunes in it.
Bernstein’s wonderful score, a mixture of balletic underscore and hit tunes, is performed to perfection by the very talented cast assembled for the Barrington Stage Company revival. The Nancy Walker role of Hildy, a female cabdriver on the make, is played here by the very talented Alysha Umphress. Betty Comden’s sophisticated yet visceral Claire is played with beautiful voice and beautiful body by Elizabeth Stanley. The sensitive Ivy, originated by ballerina Sono Osato, is given a buoyancy and charm by Deanna Doyle.
The men in their lives, for one day at least and hopefully for more at war’s end, are played by a trio of actor/dancer/singers who are really responsible for more than fifty percent of the success of this production. The hero, Gabey, is played by Tony Yazbeck whom local theatergoers may recall from his show-stopping performance last season in Williamstown in the world premiere musical version of "Far From Heaven." Here he gets a chance to really show his stuff; his dancing ability is marvelous, his singing is clear and intelligent and his acting is an emotional roller-coaster that holds the plot together. His close friends are played by Jay Armstrong Johnson whose Chip is both charming and manly at the same time, and Clyde Alves who turns the animal in Ozzie into the birth of a new sort of man. Alves, in particular, is impressive in his grasp on reality.
All six of these characters are written as comic caricatures of the sort of people they represent, but director John Rando has imbued them with a dynamic that hits close to home in this observed reality, fly-on-the-wall type of show. For these people dancing is only the direct next step from walking and singing is the best way to express emotions. With Rando and choreographer Joshua Bergasse at the wheel, these six actors are literally steered into an extended reality that is nothing short of brilliant and the authors’ jokes become reasonable expressions, and the authors’ passions are seen for what they really are: honest if overwhelming connections between people who always know the truth, that their moments together may be the entirety of their relationships.
In a brilliant world, fine talents emerge triumphant. So it is here with Michael Rupert’s performance as Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework and Nancy Opel’s triple role appearances as Madame Maude P. Dilly, Diana Dream and Dolores Dolores along with the girl of mystery herself, Lucy Schmeeler (created by the incredible Alice Pearce) played here with gusto and style by Allison Guinn. Similarly Christopher Job makes the most of his bass-baritone solo, "I Feel Like I’m Not Out Of Bed Yet." It is a song that adds nothing to the show but sets us into a world where the birth of a day is the birth of wonder and possibility and that is truly what this show is about.
Beowulf Borrit’s set works so well for this show that it becomes ubiquitous. Jennifer Caputo’s costumes are 1944 to perfection. Jason Lyons lighting design is nothing short of brilliant and even the wigs designed by Rob Greene and J. Jared Janas work well, never looking like wigs. Darren R. Cohen’s orchestra handles the difficulties of Leonard Bernstein’s score (or scores if you count the six ballet sequences separately from the songs and dances) beautifully.
I have to confess that my favorite moment in this show has always been the duet "Come Up To My Place" and the staging and performance of it here, as Hildy drives her cab and hits the brakes smashing Chip up against every impediment the front seat can provide, is still my favorite moment in the show. Tyne Daly and Kurt Ollmann, Lea DeLaria and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Bernadette Peters and Jess Richards, Betty Garrett and Frank Sinatra, and even Nancy Walker and Cris Alexander may have done well with this in the past, but nothing will ever beat Alysha Umphress and Jay Armstrong Johnson in this classic seduction sequence in this practically perfect production.
Jay Armstrong Johnon, Tony Yazbeck, Clyde Alves; photo: Kevin Sprague
Nancy Opel and Deanna Doyle; photo: Kevin Sprague
Jay Armstrong Johnson and Alyssa Umphress; photo: Kevin Sprague
On the Town plays on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage of Barrington Stage Company’s Union Street Theatre in Pittsfield, Massachusetts through July 13. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line at www.barringtonstageco.org.