Reviewed by Carlos Stafford
Old School/New School
About to open on 42nd St., this newly minted revival of On the Town presented by Lyric Theatre, is pure, shimmering entertainment. Like a fine vintage wine from good stock, this show has color, clarity, and depth. Buy a ticket, sit back. and enjoy–it’s a sure thing. You’ll get a full orchestra, big glossy sets, great singers and dancers, slapstick humor, memorable ballads, fun, era costumes, a huge cast, and a battleship full of red, white and blue energy.
Everyone in America, with the exception of a few Milliennials, has probably heard or seen this familiar show in its entirety somewhere, somehow; or seen the movie Fancy Free, or heard the music–at least one song or another: Lonely Town, New York, New York, Lucky to Be Me, or Some Other Time–all familiar standards. If not, here’s a great opportunity.
First done as a ballet, Fancy Free, by Jerome Robbins for American Ballet Theatre in 1944, next as a long running Broadway show based on the same idea a few years later, then finally reworked into an MGM movie in 1949, starring Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Ann Miller, this show has a long storied pedigree with many reincarnations here and abroad.
The plot is tissue thin, but beautifully manic: three young sailors on leave in New York City have 24 hours to meet some babes. They see a poster of Miss Turnstiles in the subway, and one of the crew, Gabey, falls in love with her image–the lovely Miss Ivy Smith. On the poster is a glowing list of some of Ivy’s “accomplishments,” and armed with these slim clues, Gabey, and his two buddies, Chip and Ozzie, decide to track her down. Off in different directions, Gabey gets lucky and finds her at a singing lesson in a Carnegie Hall rehearsal studio.
This show is about song, dance and vaudevillian humor. Leading with the dance, and making this show uber special, is the super charming Megan Fairchild, a principal dancer with The New York City Ballet, who impeccably plays the sweet and petite Ivy. It’s probably safe to say, historically, no one has ever danced this role better. Crisp, exacting, and fluid, Fairchild brings an ease and brilliance to her dances that is stunning–even for the talented cast surrounding her. Being a Balanchine trained dancer, a ballet technique requiring quickness, speed, and strength, the role is perfect for her, as she charms the house. She even gets to deliver a few spoken lines with quality.
The most affective song of the evening was the beautiful ballad, Lonely Town, delivered by Gabey as he wanders the Battery at dusk, before his fortunes change with Ivy. Gabey, played by Tony Yazbeck, goes for all the passion in this big set piece, and truly captures his isolation as a scrub in the Big Town. His blue lament is underscored as people rush by, moving him to dance an expressive solo on the esplanade, with only the Statue of Liberty in the harbor for company.
The dance, apart from Ms. Fairchild’s welcomed feminine presence, is mainly the men’s work in the show. The choreography is what I’d call Sailor Jazz old school look–goofy sailor walks, slides, hitch kicks, big leaps, blazing turns full of speed and athleticism. This however, is not Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, but “in the style of…” that works well. Cylde Alves as Ozzie, romps, especially in the museum, and has tons of personality, while Chip, Jay Armstrong Johnson, the wildly naive one from Peoria, dances with a plasticity and energy that’s truly amazing. In the big ensemble pieces, all three shine.
The singing belongs to both Hildy (Alysssa Umpress), the zophtic cabbie who tempts Chip into her cab for a free “affair,” and takes him for a wild ride around the city, then up to her apartment, and Claire DeLoone (Elizabeth Stanley), the looney Anthropologist who loves the study of Man, and wants to measure Ozzie for science, and study his primitive ways; likewise, corrals him into her apartment for futher examination. Both gals have big clear, belt voices, that create wide range and high notes–did I hear a high C from Ms Stanley?
The cast was huge, around 30 players, and many played multiple roles. Jackie Hoffman was absolutely hilarious in four roles. She was terrific as Maude P. Dilly, Ivy’s drunk, Jewish music teacher from Europe, who staggeringly says to student Ivy: “I could’ve been big over there if it hadn’t been for Those people.” “Who, says Ivy, the Germans?” “No, says Maude, “the audiences.” Hoffman also plays Diana Dream at Diamond Eddie’s and sings I Wish I Was Dead, and again as Dolores Dolores at the Conga Cabana Club where she again sings I Wish I Was Dead. What a fine comedian!
When Gabey finally finds Ivy at Carnegie Hall, and get up the guts to ask her out, she accepts, and agree to meet at Nedicks. However, she is thwarted by Maude, who wants Ivy to go to work that evening instead, to make money for her music classes. We learn Ivy really isn’t the girl in the advertisements but a cooch dancer in Coney Island, so she never shows up to meet Gabey. Maude meets a disconsolate Gabey instead, and tells him where Ivy works. All rush to take a subway to Coney Island, with only two hours remaining on their leave.
In an imaginary sequence of Coney Island, Gabey and Ivy dance an erotic dance in a boxing ring that dramatically represents the Freudian tensions of their attraction– an evocative, and shall we say, entertaining, dreamlike pas de deux enjoyed by everyone. A Japanese gentleman sitting next to me nodded and said it best, “She, very good dancer.” I nodded back, “Yes, very good.”
There’s much to like in this show, so many talents, so many bright scenes, wonderful music, great sets. There’s a lot of corny humor, abundant clichés, and not such great choreography, but in the end, all hangs together well because of its full body spirit and jazzy exuberance. Those who know it will love it again, and those who haven’t will get a peek into mid-century Broadway history. In all adds up to a remarkable experience; a cultural landmark of the American Musical Theatre that is simply, pure joy.
A must see…
Ford Center for Performing Arts, 214 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10019
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book and Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adof Green
Based on and idea by Jerome Robbins
Directed by John Rando
Music Direction James Moore
Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse