On the Town

NY City Center Encores - November 2008

Review by John Kenrick

What a helluva treat, and what a relief, to see this delightful Encores concert staging of On the Town -- a relief because previous revivals of this 1944 hit have proven to be major disappointments, most recently the clumsy production that hit Broadway in 1998. That revival was so bad that it led some critics to question why this show was ever a hit -- well, those questions are being at long last answered. The factors that make On the Town a genuine delight this time around are not hard to identify -- uniformly sensational casting, flawless musicianship, and the visual ravishment of seeing the original dances by Jerome Robbins. The result is a rare chance to see why this musical caused a fuss six decades ago, launching several now-legendary theatrical careers.

Aside from establishing Robbins as a top-rank musical theatre choreographer, the original On the Town marked the legit debut of the lyricist-librettist team Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and proved that classical music sensation Leonard Bernstein could turn out a tuneful, sophisticated and audience-pleasing popular score. In fact, this musical began as a the Robbins-Bernstein ballet Fancy Free, which worked so well that Comden and Green were brought in to help turn it into a full book musical. The basic plot is paper thin -- three sailors seek romance while on a 24 hour shore leave in wartime New York City. It took gifted performers (including Comden, Green, Nancy Walker and Sono Osato) and a non-stop flow of creative talent to make this show the hit it became.

Director John Rando has sensibly respected the original formula, giving this On the Town a straightforward staging and unusually strong casting in every role. Musical director Todd Ellison and his sensational orchestra make every note of Bernsteins music burst with excitement and heart -- if the composer had lived to see the 90th anniversary of his birth, I think it safe to say he would have wept with joy at hearing his score handled with such love and energy. One cannot guess how a Jerome Robbins would have reacted to Warren Carlyle's handsome recreation of three original dances (assisted by Scott Wise) -- Robbins was an infamous tyrant known to hurl abuse at even the finest performers. I can only say that Mr. Carlyle's work thrilled this viewer to the heart, creating images I will treasure. He also handled the other musical staging in a way that harmonized very smoothly with the Robbins sequences. (For the record, this production gave us the Robbins versions of the opening "New York, New York," "Ya Got Me," and the "Times Square Ballet.")

Broadway favorite Tony Yazbeck plays the love-lorn sailor Gabey with disarming charm and seemingly effortless masculine sex appeal, and his sweet rendition of "Lonely Town" is a standout. As his fellow sailors, Christian Borle and Justin Bohon are first rate foils. These men make the plight of three sailors looking for an innocent good time believable and appealing. Jessica Lee Goldin offers a rare blend of dancing and comedic grace as Ivy, the "Miss Turnstiles" who's subway photo captures Gabey's heart.

Andrea Martin damn near steals the show as Madame Dilly, the inebriate dance coach who selfishly tries to keep Ivy and Gabey apart -- oh, what a joy to see this peerless comedienne rock the house with uproarious schtick. Jennifer Laura Thompson blends soprano high notes with some fine comic moments of her own as the man-hungry Claire DeLoone, and as the oversexed taxi driver Hildy Esterazy, vocal powerhouse Leslie Kritzer left the opening night audience cheering with her jazzy rendition of "I Can Cook Too." The always reliable Michael Cumpsty scores with a disarming performance in the usually thankless role of Judge Bridgework.

A special addition to the usual Encores schedule, this On the Town is a fitting celebration of Bernstein's 90th birthday, a non-stop pleasure to the eye, ear and soul.

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