AISLE SAY Berkshires


Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book and Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Directed by John Rando
starring Clyde Alves, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck

Barrington Stage until July 13


Reviewed by Joel Greenberg


On the Town (running at Barrington Stage until July 13) is a helluva show! The team of Leonard Bernstein (score), Jerome Robbins (director/choreographer), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (book and lyrics), collaborated on their first Broadway project and created a musical comedy picture of New York City, circa 1944.


WWII was raging, men were fighting overseas and the fleeting nature of life and dreams inspired a story of three sailors on a 24-hour leave. Limiting themselves to the romance of the city and a beat-the-clock structure only added poignancy to what might otherwise have become a loosely strung-together series of scenes and a parcel of songs.


It’s more than merely noteworthy to acknowledge that the creative team went on, both separately and, on occasion, together, to craft some of the theatre’s most popular works over the next ten, or so, years. Bernstein, of course, enjoyed the most diverse and most acclaimed attention, though Jerome Robbins did pretty well for himself, too. The writing partners, Comden and Green, had great success in Hollywood and split their time between film and theatre. But back to where they first struck gold…


Three sailors burst onto the streets of Manhattan at 6:00 in the morning and they have one day to see the sights of the city. With guidebook in-hand, and with dreams of pretty girls swimming in their overheated imaginations, they launch themselves forward. On the subway, Gabey sees a poster of Miss Turnstiles, the subway girl-of-the-month, and he is smitten: he is immediately compelled to find her. And with this mission fixed and unshakeable, the sailors split up to find the mystery girl. In so doing, they find girls of their very own, too.


“On the Town” is a quest for human connection and comfort. As written by Comden and Green, it’s told in a series of revue scenes that are both clever and downright corny – without the Bernstein score to raise the emotional stakes, it’s possible that the show might be nothing more than a quaint period piece. But, as I’ve said, there is a Bernstein score.


There is exuberance (“New York, New York”),  sexual hunger (“Come Up to My Place”/ I Can Cook Too”), melancholy (“Some Other Time”) and, best of all, loneliness that begs respite (“Lonely Town”). In these songs, the characters reveal themselves to each other, to themselves and, by extension, to us. (There are novelty tunes, too, but they aren’t up to the level of the others and many reflect a revue style now long out of date.)


And when they aren’t singing their joys, fears and longings, the characters dance as further proof that human connections are paramount. Of the many dances – with the young Jerome Robbins at the helm, and with “On the Town” having been based on his earlier ballet, “Fancy Free”, it’s not surprising that there is too much dance – the “Pas de Deux”, “Times Square Ballet” and “Imaginary Coney Island” are the finest. (As with the secondary novelty songs, there are dance interludes that would be better left to the diehard archivist or dance historian to appreciate, so little do they add.)


The company assembled for this production is young, tireless and fully committed. Clyde Alves and Jay Armstrong Johnson, play Ozzie and Chip with ingenuousness that charms. And as Gabey, their smitten buddy in search of love and Ivy Smith, Tony Yazbeck is sensational. He conveys innocence without compromising intelligence and he adds warmth to every scene that he is in. His vocal strengths are as considerable as his dancing and acting, and his seeming lack of effort establishes a relationship with the audience that roots the entire production. My only quibble with his performance is that Yazbeck produces too much sound at the end of his numbers, thereby stepping outside his character long enough to show us how much more the performer is capable of. And this is a textbook illustration that less is really much, much more.


Elizabeth Stanley, Alysha Umphress and Deanna Doyle play opposite the three men with as much pent-up energy as the guys, themselves. All three have opportunities to reveal singing and dancing skills: Umphress has a large voice and takes full advantage of her two belt-em numbers, while Doyle is delightful as Miss Turnstiles. Stanley embraces the full foolishness of her big song, “Carried Away”. And Stanley and Umphress get to join Alves and Johnson for the next-to-closing, “Some Other Time”, one of the finest musical theatre songs ever written.


And where we don’t see them, but where we do see the results of their work, and appreciate their accomplishments: John Rando (director), Darren R. Cohen (musical director), Joshua Bergasse (choreographer), Beowulf Boritt (scenic designer), Jennifer Caprio (costume designer), Ed Chapman (sound design) and Jason Lyons (an exceptionally fluid lighting design).


Barrington Stage continues to build its strengths with strong programming choices that are well served in performance. “On the Town” is an enormous project, and I have to assume that the staff and all Board members have dug deep and long into all available resources – human, financial and inspirational – to mount a show of this caliber. Long may they continue to do so!

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