Friday, May 17, 2013

Shipshape on The Lyric Stage - Review of "On The Town

Phil Tayler, Zachary Eisenstat, John Ambrosino
by Mark S. Howard

On the left bank of the Charles River audiences are being treated to a wildly entertaining production of "Pirates of Penzance."  On the right bank in the Back Bay, the Navy has landed for 24 hours on the town in New York, New York.  I guess we can conclude that the Boston/Cambridge theater scene is shipshape at the moment.

At the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos once again manages to squeeze a great deal of action and entertainment onto the poop-deck sized stage, utilizing in this production additional spaces in the aisles and upper reaches of the house.  "On The Town" has opened for a run that will last through June 8.  If the enthusiastic reaction of last night's full house audience is any indication, this show is going to prove popular and tickets may be hard to come by.

"On The Town" is a fascinating show at many levels.  The story was originally a ballet by Jerome Robbins that Bernstein decided to turn into a musical with Betty Comden and Adolph Green not only writing the book and lyrics, but appearing on stage as two of the characters.  The finished show feels like a ballet still struggling to emerge from its balletic chrysalis to grow into a full-fledged musical.  Given the historical context, 1944 was early in the development of the musical theater genre, and there is a still a lot of music hall revue feel to the musical numbers rather than the more sophisticated plot-advancing numbers that would emerge in the next decade, beginning with Rogers and Hammerstein's  "Oklahoma."  Many of the Bernstein musical motifs that would fully flower later on in "Candide" and "West Side Story" are in evidence as buds just beginning to bloom in "On The Town."

Here is the simple plot: three navy swabbies who are buddies hit the streets of New York in the summer of 1944 on a 24-hour shore leave and are determined to each find the girl of his dreams.  Then there is also the more complex and subtle subplot: these three sailors are Jewish at a time in history when Jews were struggling to survive.  More about the subplot theme later.

The creative team at the Lyric have created a credible microcosm of Manhattan in the '40's using video projection and vintage photo projection (by SeĆ”ghan McKay), simple props, a wonderfully cartoonish Yellow Cab, and stunning period costumes (by Kathleen Doyle).  Musical Director Jonathan Goldberg has assembled a zestful group of musicians who render beautifully the 40's style music with a hint of Klezmer effects (again with the Jewish subplot!).  

The cast explodes with energy, managing the sweeping full extension leg kicks and jaunty bell kicks of the Ilyse Robbins choreography (based on the original Jerome Robbins ballet) in cramped quarters that do not in any way manage to cramp their style.  Let's begin with the nautical trio of Ozzie, Chip and Gabey.  Ozzie is played with just the right mixture of neanderthal bravado expected of an "anthropological specimen" and awestruck wonder at being in NYC by Zachary Eisenstadt.  Phil Tayler adds depth and texture to Chip, the organizer who thinks he has the whole day mapped out for them, using a guide book that is a decade out of date. One of the visual and dramatic highlights of the show is the duet that Chip sings with Hildy, the randy cab driver who Shanghais the sailor and takes him for the ride of his life.  Their rendition of "Come Up To My Place" while lurching in the Yellow Cab from one spot to another is memorable visually and vocally.  Michele A DeLuca as Hildy dives deep into her family heritage in the Bronx to come up with her interpretation of a character that must have scandalized audiences of the 1940's.  Hildy is a female cabby whose meter is always running!  Once she gets Chip to actually come up to her place, she delivers one of the show's iconic numbers, dripping with the gravy of double entendres - "I Can Cook Too."  Given DeLuca's mastery of New York attitude, I had expected her rendition of this number to be a bit more provocative and raunchy.  I am hoping that as she settles into the role, she will allow the temperature gauge on her oven to be turned up just a few degrees hotter for this number.

Phil Tayler, Michele A. DeLuca.
by Mark S. Howard

Then there is Gabey, played as if he were born for this role by John Ambrosino.  Boston audiences know John's work in "Avenue Q," "Rent" and countless other productions.  Those who have not yet seen him perform are in for a treat.  Think of a young Frank Sinatra in "From Here to Eternity" with a touch of Matthew Broderick in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and you will begin to approximate the charm that allows Gabey to win over the iconic "Miss Turnstiles" - Ivy, played beautifully by Lauren Gemelli.  When it looks as if Gabey will not be able to have his promised date with Ivy, his buddies and their girlfriends try to cheer him up with the jaunty song "Ya Got Me."  He is not buying what they are selling, and his forlorn, hangdog expression sitting at a table in the nightclub is the very picture of despair.  The expression fits the mood that he had set earlier in the show with his lament "Lonely Town."  In the words of another member of the cast, Ambrosino's voice is "like butter."

Zachary Eisenstat, Phil Tayler, Michele A. DeLuca, John Ambrosino, Aimee Doherty
By Mark S. Howard

The rest of the cast fill their roles ably and with just the right forties flair.  Aimee Doherty stands out as Claire,  the repressed anthropologist who gets "Carried Away" in falling for Ozzie, much to the eventual chagrin of her long suffering fiance, Judge Pitkin.  The cuckolded judge is played by J.T. Turner with a ridiculous patience that gives way to vengeful superciliousness.  His "I Understand" is a highlight of the show.  Sarah deLima as the ditsy and dipsomaniacal voice teacher Maude P.  Dilly is a hoot in her bohemian garb and pedagogical indiscretions.  Additional delights are offered by singers and dancers Pim van Amerongen, Rishi Basu, Cameron Benda, Kayla Bryan, Lisa Dempsey, Christina English, Caleb Dane Horst, Lenni Kmiec, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Daniel Forest Sullivan, Jeremy Towle and Ceit M.  Zweil.

At last evening's performance the audience was almost equally divided demographically between those who may have been alive in the '40's and those who are still in high school.  Both ends of the age spectrum seemed equally delighted with the goings on upon the Lyric stage.  Younger audience members seemed fascinated and titillated at the naughtiness and boldness of these ghosts of a long ago generation that seemed so much more innocent on the surface than our more liberated age.  The silverbacks among the audience surely were remembering both their own youth and the ethos of the time.  As the play reaches its denouement,  it is 6:00 AM.  The 24-hour leave is over, and our three sailors return to their ship - and to a very uncertain and dangerous future in a Navy that is still at war in Europe and in the Pacific.  And the older audience members would have been subliminally aware of the subplot.  These three Jewish sailors represent 6 million European Jews who also face an uncertain and dangerous future as the Holocaust rages on.  "On The Town" entertains, but it also provokes deep thought and reflection.



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On The Town
Book & Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes, which includes one intermission. 
Box Office: 617-585-5678 |
Meet Chip, Ozzie, and Gabey – three American sailors with one day in New York City to see the sights, meet a special someone, and have the time of their lives. The light and humorous score of Leonard Bernstein (Candide, West Side Story) melds perfectly with the sharp and witty book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Singin in the Rain, The Will Rogers Follies) to create an uplifting and exuberant musical experience including such memorable songs as “New York, New York” and “I Can Cook, Too.”
“Gloriously bright, witty, and off-the-wall!” – New York Times
Join Us For P.S.: On Sunday, May 19 at 5pm, join us for the P.S. On The Town event, with choreographer Ilyse Robbins. RSVP recommended but not required. 

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