I was apprehensive when I entered the central lobby of the vast Lyric Theatre on 42nd Street to see the latest revival of Bernstein-Comden and Green’s On the Town. I have to be one of the few left who vividly remembers the original production, and the mid-WWII lift it gave us when it opened in 1944.
I can still hear Nancy Walker’s nasal twang getting big laughs out of “I Can Cook Too.” Comden and Green performing “I Get Carried Away” was sheer delightful lunacy. John Battles was a fresh and engaging “Gaby”, one of the three sailors who hit New York at 6AM with one day to make some big time memories. Sono Osato, who had almost stolen One Touch of Venus from Mary Martin the season before, made a splash as one of the leads in this, her second show. It was all new, and fresh, and engaging. The venerable director George Abbott was the one old timer. He loved working with young talent, and here he was with a very young cast of newcomers as well as Jerome Robbins re-creating and implementing his work on the ballet “Fancy Free”, on which this show is based.
The film version with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and a host of MGM favorites was one of the few adaptations for the screen that matched the pleasures of the stage hit. It was released just as I was hitting the streets as a young actor, and I worked for days as an extra, running off the ship right behind the three stars in the opening scene of the movie.
I’ve felt ever since that this was one of “my” shows. I saw it onstage again when Ron Field, a hot director-choreographer, fresh from his three Tony Awards for Cabaret, and Applause, brought it back to Broadway in 1971 with Phyllis Newman, Bernadette Peters and Donna McKechnie, all button bright and much in demand. Something went wrong. The show didn’t sizzle any more; it more or less fizzled instead.
But George C. Wolfe, as head of the Public Theatre, gave it another shot in 1998, with a cast of unknowns, and sadly it tanked as well. Our young and sassy once-captivating musical comedy seemed to have been one that had its moment in the sun and now would join other early musical comedy hits at Cain’s Warehouse (the storage bin where the sets from old shows were buried).
That’s why I approached the Lyric Theatre a couple of nights ago with apprehension. John Rando’s directing credits were respectable enough, but he hadn’t lit up the sky the way that Gower Champion, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Hal Prince, Michael Bennett, Morton DaCosta, Elia Kazan and others had done with shows like Bye,Bye Birdie, Cabaret, A Chorus Line, The Music Man, Death of a Salesman.
Joshua Bergasse, whose work as stage choreographer I was about to witness for the first time, was with the tv series “Smash”, but I hadn’t seen enough to form any opinion. The cast at the Lyric was only vaguely familiar, and didn’t promise much. Jay Armstrong Johnson was a wonderful “Anthony” in the recent Philharmonic Hall Sweeney Todd, but that only meant I thought he was totally miscast as “Chip” in On the Town. I remembered Tony Yazbeck as “Tulsa” in one of the Gypsy revivals, but it was a role with one number, and I just didn’t see Tulsa as a young man who would grow up to be wistful Gabey, the dreamer who finds New York a lonely town.
The other four principals were totally new to me, though I’d heard good things about Megan Fairchild, a ballerina who was making her Broadway debut. I knew Jackie Hoffman, a sort of a reincarnation of the late great Nancy Walker, so I assumed she’d be playing Walker’s role “Hildy” (the taxi driver), but on checking the program, I learned she was playing several other people, but not Hildy. And the Lyric Theatre, which is where Spiderman spent 1066 performances flying about, is huge and it did not seem very hospitable as a home for this sweet little musical about 3 sailors and their one night in New York looking for some tender loving care.
Last, but certainly not least, Janet and Howard Kagan headed a list of over twenty producers, not one of which was a name recognizable to me. The original On The Town program read: Oliver Smith and Paul Feigay present .. .. “. That was it. Two names above the title, and if the news of the Ebola fears and the latest ISIS abomination and the rest weren’t enough, I still knew this was not 1944 any more, and why not leave my happy memories of this show alone?
I know this has been a long prologue to my review, but by contrast I can now tell you how absolutely delighted I was with what came next. From the opening chords emanating from under Conductor James Moore’s baton playing “The Star Spangled Banner” (!) I was hooked. All they had to do was reel me in, and in the next two hours they did just that. All my concerns were blown away as those three sailors slid, skipped and flew off that gangway, to tell us that New York is a helluva town, that they have just one day to see it all. The energy never dropped, and talent was everywhere in the air. A company of over thirty filled that stage with acrobatic exuberance. My own back has been giving me trouble of late, and watching the backward double flips, the high flying ballet leaps, I realized that if I ever had to go on, just once, I’d be dead.
Tony Yazbeck, whose voice rings clearly with melody, is just as impressive as a dancer and actor. His Gabey is indeed a character filled with longing who would be aware, in a Times Square on his own, of his loneliness, and we root for him all the way. Jay Armstrong Johnson’s “Chip” is the happy, healthy youth from Peoria, he the one with his “whole family” back there clearly having raised him to be independent and rarin’ to get into the business of living life fully. And Clyde Alves as “Ozzie”, who is part of a looney tune world meets his match when he runs into “Claire de Loone” at the Museum of Natural History, where he gets carried away.
Megan Fairchild is the perfect “Miss Subways”, which Gabe realizes from the moment he sees her face on a poster, and she makes the same sort of impact that Sono Osato did when she introduced the character in the original production. There is a dream ballet late in the second act (after Oklahoma! in 1943, they were de rigeur in just about every musical) in which she is astonishing — graceful and secure — lovely. Alysha Umpress as Hildy and Elizabeth Stanley as Claire both bring to the stage the kind of musical comedy talent rarely required in this day and age of rock’n roll scores with very dark stories. These ladies know what funny means, and they both bring back the long missing joys that all musicals used to supply – the funny second banana. Or maybe bananas were always male. Well, the second tangerine then.
Jackie Hoffman gets a paragraph of her own, for she is the polished example of what the ladies above are just learning. In one minute, she’s a funny old lady running around town with a raised umbrella, later she’s a lush voice teacher with a bottle of hootch hidden everywhere, and then there she is again as two or three cabaret singers of varying nationalities. Each performance is priceless, and how clever of John Rando and his associates for thinking of her — for more traditionally these roles have been played by several people — well, at least two.
Another welcome surprise is Michael Rupert. It’s hard to believe that in the late 1960s he was “Bibi” in the Kander and Ebb The Happy Time. Bibi is the young boy in that family musical, and I vividly remember young Rupert in that role. Later on he distinguished himself in Falsettos, Mail, Sweet Charity and more. Now he’s playing 57 year old Pitkin W. Bridgework and he makes more of this small role than anyone else ever has. It’s good to have him back on Broadway.
I assume you know by now that I was blown away by this new production, which seemed to get everything right. Beowolf Boritt’s set seemed a bit chintzy to me at first, for it consists mostly of gauzy curtains with projections on them, but by the time they included a dazzling array of New York skyscrapers, I was won over. They do leave the stage clear for the dancers, and with so many in this incredible ensemble, that’s a very wise choice. Mr. Bergasse, while honoring much of the Robbins feeling, has kept his dancers whirling and twirling to his own very distinctive steps, and they keep On The Town on its toes all evening long.
There was a boy who could not have been over five, across the aisle from me, and two seats beyond him there was a white haired gentleman. Both were bouncing around with glee, which is all you need to know about this splendid opportunity to see what young talent was capable of in creating musical theatre way back when, and what young talent can do with it today when they know what they are about.
On the Town is onstage at Lyric Theatre, 213 W 42nd St, New York, NY 10036
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.