On the Town (Pre-Broadway) at Barrington Stage Company

by Nancy Salz, June, 2013

On the Town at Barrington Stage CompanyJay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck, and Clyde Alves. Photo Kevin Sprague.

On the Town at Barrington Stage CompanyJay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck, and Clyde Alves. Photo Kevin Sprague.

On the Town
Barrington Stage, June 12 – July 13, 2013

Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book and Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Based on an idea by Jerome Robbins
Music Direction by Darren R. Cohen
Choreography by Joshua Bergasse
Directed by John Rando

Featuring Tony Yazbeck, Clyde Alves, Jay Armstrong Johnston, Elizabeth Stanley, Deanna Doyle, Alysha Umphress, Nancy Opel and Michael Rupert

The “overture” to the Barrington Stage Company’s production of On the Town, the Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical, wasn’t written by the composer. The honors belong to John Stafford Smith, who with later lyrics by Francis Scott Key, wrote “The Star Spangled Banner.”

It’s an unexpected way to begin this hilarious and horny show about three sailors on a one-day leave in New York City, but the anthem creates the context of the time. The show occurs during World War II and was premiered in December of 1944. The national anthem was played before every performance of On the Town’s initial Broadway run and is now a tradition with director John Rando’s productions.

The first scene, which takes place just before 6 AM on the dock where the sailors’ ship is berthed, is reminiscent of the street cries in Porgy and Bess. It too is more serious than the remainder of the show—serious and beautiful with Metropolitan Opera bass Christopher Job accompanied by a small male chorus singing an aria-like song, “I Feel like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet.”

Then at 6 AM, the three lead sailors Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), Ozzie (Clyde Alves) and “Chip” John Offenblock (Jay Armstrong Johnson) leap onto the stage and we are off and running with “New York, New York”—off and dancing, off and singing and laughing, and we never look back.

The plot is simple: Three sailors on a battleship docked in New York City have a 24-hour leave to see this “helluva town.” Gabey falls in love with a poster of Miss Turnstiles/June while riding the subway. His two friends agree to help him find her, and they all split up to follow the clues in the poster bio. (She’s an artist, a singer, a dancer and a shot putter, among other talents.)

Chip wants to sightsee instead of searching but gets seduced by his taxi driver, Hildy, aka Brunhilde Esterhazy (the funny Alysha Umphress who has a big, powerful voice). Never has the show-stopper “Come Up To My Place” been more physical and acrobatic and fun.

Ozzie, thinking he’s at MOMA, finds himself in front of a dinosaur at the Museum of Natural History instead and soon wants to jump the bones of an uptight paleontologist, Claire De Loone, played by the beautiful and operatic Elizabeth Stanley. They soon leave for her apartment and are discovered by her always “understanding,” older fiancé, Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework (Michael Rupert), who foolishly leaves them alone. Gabey heads off to Carnegie Hall and discovers the woman he is searching for, Ivy Smith, Miss Turnstiles/June (Deanna Doyle—an exquisite dancer with a sparkling stage presence), taking a singing lesson with her inebriated teacher, Madame Maude P. Dilly (Nancy Opel, an extraordinary physical comedian who nearly steals the show). Ivy and Gabey fall for each other and agree to meet at a Times Square Nedick’s at 11 pm. Ivy doesn’t show up because Mme. Dilly has insisted Ivy return to work as a hootchy dancer on Coney Island to earn the money she owes her. Hildy arranges a date for stood-up Gabey with her headcold-challenged roommate, Lucy Schmeeler (Allison Guinn, very funny as the sneezer). Eventually after a nightclub bar hop everything works out.

The show ends poignantly back on the dock at 6 AM with Gabey, Ozzie and Chip returning to their ship and three new sailors leaping off ready to do “New York, New York.” It makes you want the show to begin all over again.

There is brilliance in this Barrington Stage main stage production, running through July 13, 2013. The bouncy score by Leonard Bernstein was his first Broadway musical. It is less deep than West Side Story, but oh-so Bernstein with its soaring, sometimes haunting melodies and syncopated rhythms. The just-shy-of-silly book and plot by Comden and Green is topped only by their inventive lyrics. A raunchy example from “I Can Cook Too” sung by Hildy, the seductive cab driver:

“…My oven’s the hottest you’ll find. Yes, I can roast too, my chickens just ooze, my gravy will lose you your mind.

Given the amusing names of the characters, you can just imagine how much fun Bernstein, Comden and Green had creating the show. They did it quickly, tooin less than eight months after the premiere of the ballet “Fancy Free” (music by Bernstein and choreography by Jerome Robbins) on which the show is based.

On the Town is a dancing show. Robbins’s original choreography is not being used in this production, but who needs it when the Emmy-Award-winning Joshua Bergasse is in the house? The dancing he has choreographed—whether an up-tempo number like “New York, New York” or a romantic pas de deux—is inventive, frequently acrobatic and gracefully balletic. The chorus, Deanna Doyle and all three of the leading sailors are beautiful dancers.

The Tony-winning director John Rando has lived up to the high bar he set with Guys and Dolls at BSC in 2011. He exploits every moment for fun. Even a stage exit by the very-drunk Mme. Dilly brings down the house when she smacks into the proscenium instead of heading into the wings.

Rando and casting director Pat McCorkle have found outstanding people from chorus to leads for this production. The stage is overflowing with talent—figuratively and literally when the action spills into the theatre aisles, the only aspect of this show that was even remotely irritating.

And speaking of talent, let’s start with the lead sailor, Gabey, played by Tony Yazbeck. This man can dance and sing, sometimes at the same time. Even his “Lonely Town” is filled with yearning. This poignant song with minor-tinged harmonies that burst into major when the lyrics talk about love is difficult to sing. Yazbeck is a bit eclipsed by the crossover recorded covers by such opera stars as Thomas Hampson and Jerry Hadley. But then they can’t dance.

Nancy Opel, playing a character older than her 55 years, is a wonderful attention-grabbing comedian.  Hers may be the defining interpretation of Mme Dilly.

Clyde Alves and Jay Armstrong Johnson, Ozzie and Chip respectively, are also double-threat singer and dancers. (Can one get a job in a show these days if one can’t do everything?)

The scenery, too, is impressive with a shiny plastic New York City skyline as the backdrop that changes color depending on the time of day and the locale of the scene.

A ten-piece orchestra led by Darren R. Cohen plays Bernstein’s sometimes tricky scores for all of the dance numbers and incidental music.

On the Town is another musical gem from Barrington Stage, known for its musical gems. You can obtain tickets by calling 413-236-8888 or going to barringtonstage.org. You might want to loosen up your laughing, smiling and toe-tapping muscles before you head out the door. They’ll get a good workout.