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Friday, June 28, 2013

A Helluva “Town”

Tars in Bars Dept.: The world woke up to the phenomenon of Leonard Bernstein in 1943, when he made his conducting debut with the NY Philharmonic as an emergency replacement for an ailing Bruno Walter. It was a nationally broadcast triumph that landed him, the following day, on the front page of the NY Times. He was already working on the ballet “Fancy Free,” a commission from Jerome Robbins, a newly hired dancer with Ballet Theatre, which premiered the following April to great acclaim. Oliver Smith, who’d created the ballet’s scenic designed, proposed that Robbins’s basic idea, of three sailors on a 24-hour shore leave, could be turned into a musical. “On the Town” hit Broadway at the very end of 1944.


THE BARRINGTON STAGE PRODUCTION of “On the Town” is one of the finest revivals you’re likely to see in a long, long while. Director John Rando prepared for it in the best possible way: by directing the successful 2008 City Center Encores! production, from which he also brought the show’s emotional center, Tony Yazbeck, who plays the lovelorn sailor Gabey with heartbreaking intensity.

Elizabeth Stanley, Clyde Alves, Deanna Doyle,
Tony Yazbeck, Alysha Umphress and
Jay Armstrong Johnson. Photo by Kevin Sprague
Why does the show work so well? The obvious answer is Bernstein’s score. This was the first of a threesome of hit shows culminating in “West Side Story,” and it’s the most traditionally musical-theatery of them. If it seems at times like a revue, that’s not surprising – librettists Betty Comden and Adolph Green were alumni of a Greenwich Village nightclub act called The Revuers, and knew how to craft material with sophistication and wit.

Much to the annoyance of conductor Serge Koussevitzy, one of Bernstein’s mentors, the young composer was as comfortable with clubs and theater and pop songs and jazz as he was with the classics, and Bernstein unselfconsciously informed “On the Town” with rambunctious, brassy, syncopated music, while giving the score (particularly the ballet numbers) more orchestral complexity than Broadway was accustomed to hearing – what the show’s original director, George Abbott, termed “Prokofiev stuff.”

But the musical’s story also strikes an affecting chord. The three sailors on a brief holiday in turbulent, promising New York weren’t just romantic figures when the piece debuted – they were symbolic of the people charged with protecting us during a horrible war that seemed always about to threaten our shores. We who remained were fearful. Women were suddenly in the workplace, and assertively so, as we learn early on from a kvetching commuter (an indignant Kelly Sheehan).

With the threat of wartime destruction ever present, conventional morality can seem silly. Brunhilde Esterhazy – Hildy to her friends – drives a cab, and is as insubordinate as any male driver. Played in the original production by Nancy Walker, the Barrington Stage version features the versatile Alysha Umphress, who knows what she wants in a man and sees it in Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson), who only wants to sight-see.

Anthropologist Claire De Loone (a role Betty Comden wrote for herself) has sublimated her man-hungry nature into her studies, justifying any ongoing interest as research for her forthcoming book, “Modern Man: What Is It?” Which is a perfect title for the subtext of this show. Modern Man, c. 1944 at least, is fragmented, and three key elements are realized in the triumvirate of sailors. Ozzie (Clyde Alves), for whom Claire has fallen, is all id, not-so-subtly taking an onstage journey through evolution’s stages as he pursues his search for sex.

Chip, who boasts of himself as “a guy who always functions systematically,” is the complementary ego, while Gabey is the romantic, the superego, able to will the stage clear of all but himself and the idealized Ivy Smith (Deanna Doyle) for a deeply felt dream-dance. The three sailors thus are a kind of superorganism: when they separate, as happens through much of Act One, they’re easily controlled by the women they meet.

Despite the sexual symbolism and double entendre written into the work, the ultimate triumph is the realization of old-fashioned love. Reunited as the final minutes of shore leave tick away, the sailors share that triumph. In other words, the superego wins.

Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins,
Betty Comden, and Adolph Green in 1944
Pointing up the only deficiency in Rando’s direction, which is the abundance of titty-and-dick jokes. They weren’t there 70 years ago, and they don’t need to be there now except to play to the cruder gallery seats.

We live in an economy that thrives on fear, and, thanks to the likes of Fox News and the ever-helpful threat of terrorism, conventional morality remains re-jiggered. The pursuit of love is as elusive as ever – more so, perhaps, thanks to the power of social media to keep us socially fragmented while offering the illusion of something more. The simple message at the heart of this show thus endures.

“On the Town” marked Robbins’s Broadway debut as choreographer, and few were as effective as he at revealing complicated characterizations through dance. Barrington choreographer Joshua Bergasse brings an unashamed sense of Robbins to his work. He’s worked with BSC before, particularly in the Robbins-created “West Side Story.” For “On the Town,” he celebrates a key ingredient Comden and Green put into the original, which is distinguishing the characters each from each. Rarely does the cast come together in Busby Berkeley-like symmetry: we get instead a panoply of individual stories.

And the ballet sequences, particularly “Lonely Town,” are often breathtaking. Yazbeck is such a compelling presence that his rendition of the song of that title could have been affecting enough, but the dance that follows adds even more complexity. If his exuberant “Lucky to Be Me” gives a sense of classic musical theater (“Oklahoma” was still playing down the street when “On the Town” opened), “Lonely Town” pushed it in a new direction.

Armstrong and Umphress share a hyperkinetic cab ride during the number “Come up to My Place,” a marvel of sight gags and comic timing that teeter on the edge of silliness without getting overly cheap. If you don’t know the difference between “Angel Street” and Tobacco Road,” it doesn’t matter. The song has more energy than a mere superannuated reference or two can dismay. Umphress’s solo turn, “I Can Cook Too,” is another star turn for her, so simmering with sensuality that the overt sex stuff slathered on top of it is superfetation.

Then there’s Alves, a ringer for the young Norman Wisdom, donning a sailor suit again after his recent Broadway turn in “Anything Goes,” cavorting through the Museum of Natural History during “Carried Away,” dancing on a table while reminding Gabey “Ya Got Me,” informing the trio dances with impressive acrobatics.

Nancy Opel is always a pleasure to see on stage, and she pours herself into the overbearing, dipsomaniacal Madame Dilly, a charlatan singing instructor, with scene-stealing ease. Likewise Michael Rupert as long-suffering Judge Pitkin, Claire’s fiancé, whose hilarious “I Understand” reminds us that denial, a cultural necessity, can impersonate tolerance for only so long.

Jay Armstrong Johnson, Alysha Umphress,
Clyde Alves, Elizabeth Stanley and
Tony Yazbeck. Photo by Kevin Sprague
Oliver Smith designed sets for the original with detailed representations of the various visited sites; Beowulf Boritt’s Barrington set goes to an appropriate opposite, a plexiglass skyline creating an upstage wall, a few pieces of set to denote locations. It leaves plenty of room on the smallish stage and helps the other elements tell the story.

Darren R. Cohen leads a ten-piece ensemble in the challenging score (too challenging for the obtuse Roger Edens, who threw out most of Bernstein’s music back when the show was filmed). What with the amazing singing and dancing that makes the evening speed by, it’s easy to forget that the musicians have an equally difficult job and are just as brilliant at it.

Perhaps this is the moment for “On the Town.” Its two Broadway revivals weren’t much of a success, but it just finished an acclaimed run (with a completely different cast and crew) at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston; the Barrington Stage Company’s production runs only through July 13. You’ll count yourself lucky to see it.

On the Town
Music by Leonard Bernstein; book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Musical direction by Darren R. Cohen; choreography by Joshua Bergasse
Directed by John Rando
Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., June 27

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