On the Town continues at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London until 1 July.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
On the Town has its origin in the ballet Fancy Free which had opened in New York in the spring of 1944. With choreography by Jerome Robbins and music by Leonard Bernstein, it was a hit with audiences straight away.
The musical followed in December of the same year with Robbins and Bernstein repeating their pivotal input and Betty Comden and Adolph Green writing the book and lyrics.
On the Town’s story, of course, is about three sailors on shore leave for 24 hours in pursuit of three girls.
It took on an added frisson as a musical for in the meantime America had gone to war leaving many, particularly the young, exposed to the vulnerability of parting and desperate to cling to every moment before call up. This production catches that spirit so well.
However, the book of the show isn’t quite flawless. With their background in revue, it could be said that Comden and Green’s book is a series of sketches, albeit amusing ones, that don’t fit so snugly into the spacious orchestral design of the music.
Nevertheless, there’s wit aplenty in their dialogue and some first rate comic songs (‘I Can Cook Too’, ‘Carried Away’), as well as a poignant close in the quartet ‘Some Other Time’.
The score is framed by that wonderful paen to New York:
‘New York, New York, a helluva town
The Bronx is up, but the Battery’s down
The people ride in a hole in the ground
New York, New York, it’s a helluva town!’
Drew McOnie, who received much acclaim for his choreography of Jesus Christ Superstar last season, has done it again with his exciting and imaginative staging and movement for On the Town.
The action fairly bristles along under his direction and he is blessed with a stunning dance ensemble, members of which relish every terpsichorean moment in Bernstein’s rhythmically-charged score.
The music is propelled along with great gusto by conductor Tom Deering and played with pinpoint precision by the 17-piece orchestra, placed at the rear of the stage.
The fluidity of the stage action is enhanced by a production design that whisks us effortlessly from the opening scene in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to subway, taxi cab, museum, apartments, Times Square, nightclubs and Coney Island, before delivering us back to base.
Although there isn’t a skyscraper in sight, the music is a constant reminder that we couldn’t be anywhere other than New York City. Designer Peter McKintosh’s set of corrugated iron frames, with their metal roller doors from the opening naval yard scene, double as dancing platforms to enhance the musical numbers in the foreground.
Plus his costumes ensure the cast looks terrific, the sailors in pristine white, the girls in neon-bright primary colours.
Success is a double-edged sword for leading man Danny Mac as Gabey (the role played by Gene Kelly in the movie). Become a much-admired dancer via TV’s Strictly, then find yourself cast as the leading man in a Broadway musical, and one or two eyebrows might be raised.
Mac has a charming lightweight voice, not unlike Kelly himself, and it’s clear that he has taken the trouble to master the lyrical style of ‘Lonely Town’ and ‘Lucky To Be Me’, two of the show’s most fetching ballads. His performance is understated at present, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find him growing in confidence as the show progresses.
His Miss Turnstiles, the girl he insists on dating after seeing her picture on the subway, marks an auspicious dance (and professional) debut for Siena Kelly.
Jacob Maynard, as Chip, a late cast replacement, fits like a glove into the ensemble. Fellow sailor, Samuel Edwards as Ozzie, partnering Miriam-Teak Lee’s Claire De Loone (another remarkable debut), are heard to devastating effect in their brilliantly executed duet, ‘Carried Away’.
Lizzy Connolly is the man-eating partner to Maynard, trying to persuade him to ‘Come Up to My Place’ as she drives him in her taxi, hell-bent on a conquest.
In smaller parts, Maggie Steed adds a droll touch as a dipsomaniac singing teacher, and Mark Heenehan – as the cuckcolded Judge – a deadpan one with his solo ‘I Understand’.
On the Town on stage has never quite achieved the plaudits that were given to the film. This production allows it to find a special place – almost – alongside the likes of Guys and Dolls. It’s a joyful, fun-filled evening and occasionally, in execution, more so.
Tickets for On the Town at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre are available HERE
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