Theater Review: On the Town Can Still Cook, Too

Photo: Joan Marcus

On the Town is a heartbreakingly youthful work: both about youth and by youth. Watching its three sailors pursue a lifetime of adventure while on 24-hour shore leave in New York, New York, you can’t help sensing the shadows of the three giddy pals who knocked the show together in 1944. The whole project took just six months from idea to opening. How, in that time, did Betty Comden and Adolph Green manage to fashion a feasible Broadway libretto from the ballet Fancy Free, which had premiered (with music by Leonard Bernstein and choreography by Jerome Robbins) just that spring? How did Bernstein manage, between conducting gigs, to provide the entirely new score he insisted upon? These are the kinds of challenges only fledglings take on; at opening night that December, Green was barely 30, Comden and Bernstein (and Robbins) not even. Who could imagine that their freshman lark would prove so enduring? And yet here it is, 70 years later, in its third Broadway revival, as big and breakneck and beautiful as ever.

As imperfect, too; the revival, like the original, triumphs over some insufferable missteps. The 1944 book, especially, betrays the authors’ haste. Apparently, Comden and Green asked the original set designer, Oliver Smith, what locations he’d enjoy designing and then provided scenes to match. So it’s no surprise that the reverse-engineered plot is somewhat random. The three sailors don’t represent different attitudes so much as different theatrical opportunities the authors wished to exploit. We follow Gabey, the romantic one, to Carnegie Hall and Times Square on his search for Miss Turnstiles, whom he’s fallen in love with after seeing a poster advertising her artistry. (Hence the balletic numbers.) We follow Chip, the methodical one, as he tries to take in all of the city’s tourist sites and in the process gets picked up in more ways than one by a female taxi driver. (Hence the jazzy numbers.) And we follow Ozzie, a Neanderthal who just wants a lay, to the Museum of Natural History, where he knocks a lady anthropologist off her feet and a dinosaur off its perch. (Hence the musical-comedy numbers.) Sometimes the resulting construction seems to be the work of the three sailors themselves, careering around the city with bits of story fluttering off the plot like streamers on a wedding car.

I have always found the (literal) running gags — the ditzy chases and in-one sketches — a chore, and the effortfully silly character names (John “Chip” Offenblock, Clair De Loone, Pitkin W. Bridgework) less than inspiring. But they apparently inspired Bernstein, and that’s enough. Everything great in On the Town, including the dances, begins in his score, and flowers from it, in alternating colors of blue and brass. Right from the top, Bernstein introduces these two moods, interrupting the longing phrases of the sleepy prelude (“I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet”) with the manic, leaping propulsion of “New York, New York.” Has there ever been dance music as beautiful as “Lonely Town” in the American theater? (Maybe “The Carousel Waltz.”) Has there ever been as joyful a hot-mama melody as “I Can Cook Too”? The natural rather than gratuitous balancing of sadness and exultation — the way each seems to invite or even require the other – is the stamp of Bernstein’s genius, an achievement the story itself only catches up with, panting heavily, much later.

So it’s a pleasure to report that the musical aspects of the revival, which began life last year at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, are first-rate. The singing is very strong, and the orchestra is even stronger, with 28 players (at least for now) performing the brilliant original orchestrations. (The band in Pittsfield had less than a dozen.) That’s not the only advantage to the enlargement of the show, which was lovely and intimate in the Berkshires, and which chatterati feared would get swallowed at the Lyric Theatre, arguably Broadway’s barniest. The huge stage allows more room for Joshua Bergasse’s choreography, which bows but does not scrape to the Robbins originals and is often quite gorgeous, especially in the self-contained numbers. It’s a glorious sight, for instance, in the “Times Square Ballet” that ends act one, when a dozen sailors, instead of just a handful, fill the stage with their tour-of-duty jetés. And when Gabey (Tony Yazbeck) and Miss Turnstiles (New York City Ballet’s Megan Fairchild, new to the cast) have their erotic pas de deux in the second act (“Imaginary Coney Island”) the emptiness around them makes the emotion of the encounter feel vast.

But some of the chat-room fears were apt. Beowulf Borritt’s physical production is not only bigger but stranger, with glassy panels at the rear of the stage that make pretty reflections but suggest a sleek commercial New York that the story does not address. The many animated projections are often fun but also incongruous, like the backgrounds of a Batman cartoon. And it’s not just in the sets that perspectives are heavily forced. All the performances except for Yazbeck’s, which remains simple and dignified, have grown much broader. The warm rapport between Jay Armstrong Johnson and Alysha Umphress as Chip and the taxi driver is in danger of disappearing under appliquéd behavior. Clyde Alves and Elizabeth Stanley as Ozzie and the anthropologist, previously just musical-comedy types, are heading in the direction of musical-comedy ciphers. (But “Carried Away,” their ugga-bugga-boo dance at the museum, is a hoot.)

The material can accommodate a certain amount of this; Comden and Green, who wrote the “Carried Away” roles for themselves, were not known for their subtlety. But there’s no profit in it, and after a while the busy-ness begins to suggest that director John Rando does not trust the material. Particularly in the comedy songs, he has the performers constantly annotating their lyrics as if playing charades. Umphress, a marvelous singer, is so burdened with such gymnastics that she can’t land the dirty jokes of “I Can Cook Too.” Is there some concern that, without this help, the family audiences the show hopes to reach will not understand what’s going on? (When a secondary couple fall in love, a spray of animated hearts suddenly blossoms above them.) Can no song be trusted to score its points without constant visual annotation? (“Gabey’s Comin’” features embarrassing dancing mannequins.) As if the shtick-per-square-inch level weren’t high enough, you should also know that your ticket includes admission to the Jackie Hoffman Show, a mostly unrelated drama playing simultaneously on the same stage. It stars that funny but focus-pulling actress as a woman with four small roles and zero boundaries.

As the plot races toward its conclusion, its story lines finally begin to straighten out, and so does this jumpy revival. The sailors, having found their girls, must head back to ship — and then where? The war is still on. The seriousness of that subtext brings them up short, no less than it did Comden and Green, who responded with the evening’s loveliest (because most restrained) lyric:

This day was just a token,
Too many words are still unspoken.
Oh, well, we’ll catch up
Some other time.

There’s no shtick here, no semaphore; apparently audiences even 70 years along can be trusted to know what it means to be young with a doubtful future. If for no other reason than “Some Other Time” — and there really are plenty — get yourself, by warship or taxi, to On the Town. It’s a crowd-pleaser, but don’t let that ruin it for you.

On the Town is at the Lyric Theatre.

Theater Review: On the Town