by Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler
A star has been born on Broadway this season at the Lyric Theatre. Unfortunately you won’t see him onstage because it’s choreographer Joshua Bergasse, who has breathed new life into On The Town, the iconic American musical first staged by Jerome Robbins.
Following the antics of Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and Ozzie (Clyde Alves), three sailors on leave in the Big Apple, On The Town is a celebration of the American songbook and an era of big, splashy musicals. Gabey quickly spots the girl of his dreams on a poster, “Miss Turnstiles” aka Ivy Smith (Megan Fairchild), and sets about finding her in the big city. The trio splits up and they each find their own love interests. Chip hails a cab from a big-voiced broad, Hildy (Alysha Umphress) while Ozzie stumbles across Claire De Loone (Elizabeth Stanley), a sexually starved woman of means at the American Museum of Natural History. Their stories unfold in classic musical theater fashion, with sweeping dance sequences, lots of shtick, and a resounding orchestra helmed by music director/conductor James Moore.
Originally inspired by Robbins’ 1944 ballet Fancy Free, which he created for the American Ballet Theater, On The Town was expanded into a full book musical the same year with the help of music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (both of whom appeared in the original production). Multiple revivals have ensued, including the 1998 short-lived production that helped launch the career of Jesse Tyler Ferguson (of TV’s Modern Family).
This latest incarnation set sail earlier this summer under the direction of John Rando (Urinetown) with much of the same cast and creative team at Barrington Stage Company. Mr. Yazbeck as Gabey is the show’s narrative anchor and delivers a Tony-worthy performance overflowing with charm, impeccable dancing and a crooning voice that echoes the great Rat Pack. As his love interest, Ms. Smith brings her New York City Ballet experience to the stage and is ravishing in Bergasse’s complex and demanding sequences. It’s a bit underwhelming when she opens her mouth to speak, and one wonders if Gabey’s infatuation might fade if there was an Act III.
His sidekicks do due diligence, offering laughs, acrobatics and endearing vulnerability. They fare better than their female counterparts, who feel more like cutouts than fully realized characters. (Though Ms. Umprhress’s jazz inflections are worthy of her own show at 54 Below or another such venue.) The hardworking ensemble meets the demands of the choreography and delivers some quirky character performances, including a pocketful of quick-changing accents from Stephen DeRosa and scene-chewing turns from funny lady Jackie Hoffman, who would run off with the set if she could.
From a technical standpoint, On The Town neither reinvents itself nor pays homage to the splashy productions of yesteryear. Beowulf Boritt’s sets and projections feel flimsy and at times even distracting with the extensive use of transparent and reflective materials, assumingly used to add volume to the vacuous stage. Jess Goldstein (costumes) and Jason Lyons (lighting) fulfill their Technicolor duties in spades. It is all but a playground for Joshua Bergasse’s handiwork and a sweeping score that reminds us that New York truly is a helluva town.
On The Town
213 West 42nd Street