It’s not easy to get On the Town right. You have to hook into the sensibility of the period and a performance style that evokes it. Too many directors mistake freneticism for screwball—even generally, not merely in On the Town—and yet you have to preserve the sense of World War Two as a present factor. When those three sailors sing about having “just one day” to enjoy New York while on leave, it helps up the ante on the comedy, on the ticking clock running out on the time that Gabey has to find Ivy, if in the back of our minds, just as a subliminal enhancement, we’re aware that this could be the sailors’ last 24 hour leave, ever. That they may not return from duty alive.
John Rando starts off the evening with a giant drop of the American flag and the audience asked to rise to sing the national anthem. In an era where terrorism can lurk around the corner, it’s reminder enough…and then the fun begins.
After that there are two ways you can do On the Town. You can do it as director Bill Berry did with the production from Washington’s 5th Avenue Theatre that was imported to the Paper Mill Playhouse a few years ago and—this is the only way I can articulate it—just let it be what it is. Cast people who connect effortlessly with the performance style and go for period authenticity of a sort.
The second is to do what Rando has done. And it’s harder. Not better. Harder. Which is to update the sensibility without making it seem like an update. Find the dated jokes, root them out, put in hipper jokes and then create a comic playing style that’s about the era in terms of idiom and iconography, but is also a comment on the era, allowing for contemporary perspective, a more knowing nostalgia, if you will.
Among the things that makes this harder is you have to keep working the tone it to keep it alive. And you can’t overwork it, lest you start winking at the audience such that you descend from Comden-Green-Bernstein-style send-up to camp, and lose the heart, not to mention the funny.
If there is a reigning comedy specialist among the new generation of musical theatre directors, Rando is probably it, and he’s one of the few (if there are even as many as a few) who could have pulled this off. My only carp…at times I think he stays too long on a good thing, in the musical interludes particularly. Judicious and merciless internal trimming would make what’s already splendid even better, I think.
He has, of course, abetted his triumph with excellent casting; and rather than go through the subroutine of naming and praising the leads in the exceptional cast, I’ll just single out personal favorites: Tony Yazbek as Gabey—brilliant in all departments, dancing and singing and etc. but perhaps most notably in floating the character’s sweet, gallumphy naïveté—and Alysha Umphress as “I Can Cook Too” Hildy; her bio sports enough credits that to call her “a real find” is perhaps overstating the case, but there’s no question that she’s turned Hildy into a breakout role; the virtual poster girl for the sexiness of the “fuller” woman, her scat-singing alone is enough to bring down the house. But the rest of the leads and supporting players are just as fine.
Add spectacular physical design (sets: Beowulf Borritt, costumes: Jess Goldstein), tech design to match and the kind of choreography that reminds you why you’re a patriot, or should be (Joshua Bergasse) and On the Town is exactly what it should be: a primer for future generations of theatre artisans on how revivals ought to be handled…
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