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A Helluva Show

books and culture

A Helluva Show

A new production of On the Town captures the spirit of New York City. March 25, 2015
Arts and Culture
Clyde Alves, Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson and the cast of On the Town

With music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the original 1944 production of On the Town was a celebration of the freedom and energy that New York City represented in wartime. The musical rightly brought fame to its three wunderkind creators, all in their twenties, who drew their inspiration from the Jerome Robbins ballet Fancy Free.

Now, as the spectacular, must-see revival of On the Town returns to Broadway at 42nd Street’s Lyric Theatre, the musical reflects a city that has itself been revived in a synergy of past and present. Then as now, it’s the right time to see On the Town. After all, could there be a greater paean to urban life? The ultimate love interest in this musical of three American sailors on shore leave is, of course, “New York, New York, a helluva town,” where “The Bronx is up, but the Battery’s down” and “the people ride in a hole in the groun’.” The city captivates and animates the storyline, beginning with that famous opening number. One sailor, Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson), calls the city “a visitor’s place!” and announces his ambitious touring schedule (“10:30 Bronx Zoo, 10:40 Statue of Liberty”).

The famous places to visit are so many,

Or so the guidebooks say.

I promised Daddy I wouldn’t miss on any.

And we have just one day.

Got to see the whole town

From Yonkers on down to the Bay.

Ozzie (Clyde Alves), meanwhile, has other attractions in mind: “Manhattan women are dressed in silk and satin,/ Or so the fellas say;/ There’s just one thing that’s important in Manhattan,/ When you have just one day.” A poster on the subway convinces Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), the shy sailor, to seek out Ivy Smith (Megan Fairchild), the winner of “Miss Turnstiles for the month of June.” The sailors’ 24-hour trek spans Carnegie Hall and the uptown museums to midtown nightclubs and Coney Island. Eventually, they assemble together with their dates—the fizzy anthropologist Claire de Loon (Elizabeth Stanley) with Ozzie, the brassy taxi driver Brunhilde “Hildy” Esterhazy (Alysha Umphress) with Chip, and Ivy Smith with Gabey—only to have to say their goodbyes at the Navy docks just as another three sailors slide down the gangplank, singing the same opening tune.

The team behind this current On the Town—lead producers Howard and Janet Kagan and director John Rando—captured the revival spirit of both the musical and the city with a promotional music video released last summer. The video closely tracks the familiar opening shots of the 1949 movie film version starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. Rather than running off their ship onto the Brooklyn Navy Yard, though, our three sailors emerge in their starched white suits running down the gangplank of the Intrepid—the sea, air, and space museum in the aircraft carrier docked on the Hudson River. Then these spirits of World War II-era New York are seen singing and dancing around today’s city. Some locations have thankfully changed little since the 1940s—the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, Bethesda Fountain, the Statue of Liberty, the American Museum of Natural History. Yet, for their bike ride through Central Park, the sailors rent Citibikes. And between shots of Chinatown and a carriage ride through the park, they visit the Apple Store on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. If anything, the city looks far clearer and better than it did on film 60 years ago.

The preternatural and, at times, winking exuberance of this revival gets carried through the musical, which is lavishly staged with a live 28-piece orchestra at the Lyric. The revival is surprisingly faithful to the original Broadway production. Each performance begins with the cast, led by Phillip Boykin, joining the audience in a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” This patriotic feeling continues throughout the show, especially as Stephen DeRosa, on the night I attended, singled out a veteran in the audience for special recognition of his service.

But just like the original musical, this revival is far more red-blooded and grittier than the sanitized Hollywood production. Not only did “helluva town” get changed to “wonderful town” in the 1949 film, but many of the best musical numbers were cut, in particular Hildy’s “I Can Cook Too,” which includes a full serving of double entendre (“I’m a man’s ideal of a perfect meal/ Right down to the demi-tasse./ I’m a pot of joy for a hungry boy,/ Baby, I’m cookin’ with gas.”) A new cast recording of this revival has just been released by PS Classics.

In addition to the possibilities presented by the city (where density and public transportation play a leading role), On the Town also hints at the more desperate side of the urban experience, especially for the women. Ivy Smith, a celebrity in the eyes of Gabey, is being hustled by an alcoholic dance teacher (Jackie Hoffman) who insists that she debase herself working at an after-hours gentlemen’s club on Coney Island to pay for her classes. Claire de Loon cracks in an unhappy marriage, which her fly-by-night relationship with Ozzie finally destroys. Hildy, fired from her job as a taxi driver, lives with a sick roommate in an apartment overlooking a brick wall.

Yet for its lows, the New York of On the Town is ultimately one of great heights, finally reached in the dream dance sequence between Gabey and Ivy. Inspired by the heated choreography of Jerome Robbins, the nine-minute pas de deux, choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, finds the dancers sweating it out in a boxing ring before soaring into one another’s arms. That Ivy is danced by Fairchild, the famous principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, speaks to the talent that only a city can gather. Here is a production that only Broadway can stage and a story that only New York can tell.

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