Wednesday, April 15, 2015

New York Theatre Review: On the Town

Both The King and I (which I reviewed yesterday) and On the Town are revivals of classic musicals, yet they are completely different types of shows. The King and I is Rodgers and Hammerstein at their absolute best: unafraid to tackle dark subjects like racism, sexism, and abuse of power; a score full of popular and hummable tunes; elaborate and realistic costumes and sets; operatic, classically-trained voices; well-developed, subtle characters; lavish production numbers. On the Town, on the other hand, with music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Comden and Green (who, interestingly, both played leads in the original Broadway production), is much more light-hearted fare: heavy on big dance routines; broadly comedic characters and situations; voices more suited for jazz and belting; bright, stylized, almost cartoonish sets and costumes. Directly comparing the two productions would be comparing apples and oranges. But oranges can be just as delightful as apples.

Originally produced on Broadway in 1944, On the Town is most well-known through the 1949 Gene Kelly movie (although the majority of the music was changed for the film). The stage musical was revived on Broadway (with the original Bernstein score intact) in 1971, in 1998, and again in the current revival, which opened at the Lyric Theater in 2014. Although I’m quite familiar with the original Broadway score (I’m particularly fond of Nancy Walker’s rendition of the song “My Place”), I don’t know how much of the script was changed between the original production and the various revivals, nor how different the set is from the original. I can say, however, that the current production has a very vintage, 1940s comic strip feel to it, from the vibrant colors to the stylized sets to the broad humor to the caricature characters. 

Even the technical aspects of the show have quite a retro feel to them. Instead of the high-tech video wall backdrop of the Radio City Music Hall stage (see my upcoming review of the Radio City Spring Spectacular for more on that) or the set wizardry of the flown-in pillars and chandeliers and the life-size moving ship of The King and I at the Vivian Beaumont Theater (see my previous review), this production relies on projected silhouettes, reflecting walls, neon lights, and rear-screen projection. The low-tech approach suits the simple, suggested, stylized sets much better than the bells and whistles of most modern Broadway productions.

The advantage, of course, to having a show with minimal set pieces taking up space is that you have a wide-open stage to fill with wild dancing. And if this show does one thing to perfection, it’s the dancing.

Broadway newcomer Megan Fairchild brings her experience as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet to the role of Ivy, but her skills are not limited to her dance. With a voice that even sounds terrific when she’s standing on her head, and “sweet and innocent” oozing out of every pore, she brings a charm to the role that has the audience wanting Gabey to find her nearly as much as Gabey does.

The three sailors also have plenty of both dance and acting skills. Unlike the film version, where the three sailors tend to be remembered as “Gene Kelly and a couple of other guys” (sorry, Mr. Sinatra), the three sailors in this production are much more evenly balanced. Tony Yazbek’s Gabey (the Gene Kelly role) has more featured vocals (particularly ballads) and a bit more classical dance, Jay Armstrong Johnson’s Chip has some delightful physical comedy (managing to appear squished and confined inside a taxi which consists of merely a bright yellow bench seat and a steering wheel), and Clyde Alves’ Ozzie’s terrified/exhilarated romp first with a large T. rex skeleton and later with a large anthropologist manages to reel in a couple of scenes that teeter on being too cartoonish even for this production. The three men together have a nice, brotherly, believable chemistry which is welcome and refreshing in a show full of caricatures and manufactured situations. Their mission to find Miss Turnstiles is the thread of believability which holds the show from completely flying apart into unreality. 

Another delight in this particular production is the many secondary (or tertiary, or quaternary) roles that are so well-played as to be memorable in spite of their minor status. Philip Boykin plays multiple small roles, but wins over the audience immediately with his glorious deep voice in the show’s opening number, “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet.” Jackie Hoffman also plays multiple comedic roles, pretty much stealing the scene in every one of them, but most notably in her recurring role as the booze-swilling voice teacher Madame Dilly, whose hip flask seems to magically transform her voice from a bass croak to an operatic coloratura. Even the unnamed ensemble member with the running “So I said…” subway gag brought it to life with impeccable timing and a spot-on Brooklyn accent.

One final high point of the show for me was the glorious jazzy, belty performance of Alysha Umphress as Hildy. Each of her numbers was unabashedly in-your-face (as they should be for her character), hitting the back wall of the theater, vocal pyrotechnics and power. When you’ve got a voice like that, you ought to show it off.

To sum up, if ever a show was greater than the sum of its parts, it’s this revival of On the Town. Taken separately, most aspects of the production were good, but somehow they all worked together to create a production that is much better than good. It’s a helluva show!

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