On the Town by Guildford School of Acting third-year BA Musical Theatre graduates at Ivy Arts Centre, Guildford, continues until 29 March.
Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
Although On the Town creaks a bit – at 71 years old it’s entitled to look a tad old-fashioned and out of tune with modern tastes – the boundless energy of the Guildford School of Acting’s large cast and some terrific individual performances turn this tuneful homage to New York into a standing-ovation triumph.
What songs they are from the great Leonard Bernstein and the book-and-lyrics team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green – ‘New York, New York’, the famous scene-setter for “a helluva town”, and those soulful ballads ‘Some Other Time’ (beautifully staged under Steven Dexter’s direction and Phyllida Crowley-Smith’s choreography) and ‘Lonely Town’.
Not forgetting the sassy double entendre of ‘I Can Cook Too’, one song for which Bernstein wrote both words and music, here performed with great aplomb in various stages of undress by Tamsin Pollock as the man-eating cabbie Hildy, hellbent on showing her sailor the real sights.
The lightweight story centres on three sailors on 24-hour shore leave; two of them have no trouble finding their love interests, while the unworldly third settles for starstruck romance.
Farmboy Gabey falls head over heels with a poster of Miss Turnstiles winner Ivy (sweetly played and danced by Alice Rose Fletcher), Ozzie is swooped upon by a scholarly anthropologist, the wonderfully named Claire de Loone, who releases her primitive inner woman when getting ‘Carried Away’ at the Natural History Museum, and Chip gets the full works from his cab driver.
Playing Claire is the gifted Annabel Edwards, who takes total control of the stage with her confident acting and thrilling soprano. We shall, I hope, be hearing more of her and Miss Pollock.
Those two have the best parts and rather overshadow the three male leads, solidly rather than spectacularly sung by Jordan Oliver, Marcus Richter and Joshua Price.
Daniel O’Flanagan makes Judge Pitkin, the doormat fiancé of Claire fed up with being used solely to pay the bar bills, come vividly to life in the droll ‘I Understand’ in which he renounces his standard response to her bossy demands.
For this 1944 musical, Comden and Green joined forces with the young Bernstein to convert a Jerome Robbins ballet into a Broadway show, which was turned five years later into the ever-popular Frank Sinatra-Gene Kelly movie that is wheeled out, usually around Christmas, on TV.
It was written when all four were young (average age 27) and was aimed at entertainment-hungry audiences as the Second World War reached its climax, a period brilliantly evoked in the back-screen projections of various wartime front pages and adverts of the time warning citizens to be careful who they spoke to – ‘LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS’.
A cigarette puff for Camel with real smoke emerging from the smoker’s mouth follows and later cabaret and ballet performers at Carnegie Hall burst from a poster into all-singing-all-dancing life – clever stuff indeed.
Not everything works. Some of the ensemble dancing, particularly in Act I, could be punchier, and while Jerrilee Parker Geist and Virginia Kerr, as phoney vocal coach Madame Dilly and Hildy’s goofy roommate, do their best, these parts now grate where once they passed for amusing cameos.
Denied the full-scale orchestra envisaged by Bernstein when he wrote the score, George Dyer and Sean Mayes on two colourful pianos manfully carry the musical burden on their own, except when cast members multi-task on a third.
Not perhaps GSA at their absolute best, but still a worthwhile attempt at a historic piece and a tough test for young actors required to get into that 1940s mindset. But with 33 parts it’s a good choice for musical theatre students as it gives so many the opportunity to strut their stuff.