Thursday, October 16, 2014

It's a Helluva Show

Review: On the Town

Clyde Alves, Tony Yazbeck, and Jay Armstrong Johnson lead the cast of the current Broadway revival of On the Town.

They don't make them like this anymore. Whether that is a good or a bad thing depends largely on personal taste, but either way it's hard to remember the last time Broadway birthed a musical as earnestly and innocently zany as the Bernstein-Comden-Green classic On the Town. And as the delightfully frothy revival which just opened at Broadway's newly renamed Lyric Theatre proves, there is a reason this particular brand of musical comedy reigned supreme for so long: it's just damned entertaining.

The show opens with a heartfelt rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner," played to glorious perfection by one of the largest, lushest orchestras on Broadway under the skilful baton of conductor James Moore. The lights rise on a sleepy seaside dock, and by the time Phillip Boykin finishes crooning the show's bucolic opening "I Feel Like I'm Not Out of Bed Yet," it is abundantly clear that this is one of the most lovingly rendered, celebratory revivals to grace Broadway in many years. Expertly performed and masterfully staged, On the Town is a love letter not just to the city of New York but to the Golden Age of Broadway, a show where the spectacle derives from the talent of the performers and the cleverness of the writing as opposed to elaborate production design (although Beowulf Boritt's candy colored sets and Jess Goldstein's period-perfect costumes are certainly a joy to behold).

The cast, from top to bottom, is virtually pitch perfect. Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson, and Clyde Alves excel as the central trio of sailors given 24 hours shore leave, exuding an infectious camaraderie and an unabashed love for one another and the material. Yazbeck proves himself a true triple threat as romantic lead Gabey, anchoring the show with his earnestness and lending his powerful voice to some of the score's most anthemic ballads. Johnson is an unexpected delight as Chip, the most overtly comedic of the three roles, with his boyish good looks and "gee golly" charm endearing him to the audience almost instantly. And Alves holds his own as Ozzie, with a gleefully manic energy and over the top physicality that makes his big showcase "Carried Away" one of the evening's many highlights.

Matching them step for step and scene for scene are their respective love interests. Megan Fairchild, long one of New York City Ballet's most celebrated dancers, makes her Broadway debut as Ivy, and the audience is just as instantly smitten with her as Yazbeck's Gabey. Though a fine actress and singer, Fairchild was clearly cast to dance, and she does so in some of the most virtuosic solo work seen on Broadway this decade. Her second act pas de deux with Yazbeck is breathtakingly gorgeous, and throughout the evening Fairchild appears to effortlessly float across the stage despite the rigorous demands placed on her by choreographer Joshua Bergasse. Elizabeth Stanley is glorious unhinged as Claire, Ozzie's (engaged) romantic foil, and despite a uniformly strong cast, Alysha Umphress threatens to steal the show as Hildy, Chip's bold and brassy lady love.

In fact, Umphress is close to a revelation in the role, effortlessly self assured and blessed with a voice that can raise the rafters. Her introductory duet with Johnson, "Come Up to My Place," is one of the evening's most sustained feats of hilarity, aided by Johnson's game physicality and delightfully simple yet effective staging by director John Rando. And just when it looks like Umphress' best moment will be her first, she knocks the innuendo-laden "I Can Cook Too" out of the park. In fact, that number's instant reprise (a stylistic trait that has not aged particularly well) is the only one of the night that feels entirely welcome, as Umphress' high energy scatting and big money note suitably top her already sterling delivery of the song's original incarnation.

The previously mentioned Rando and Bergasse (director and choreographer, respectively) deserve special praise for the way they have effortlessly wrangled this beast of a show into an easily digestible comedic feast. Rando keeps things moving with his varied and inventive staging; for a show with comparatively few scenic elements, On the Town is always interesting to look at. And in his Broadway choreographic debut, Bergasse astounds with the sheer volume and ingenuity of his work. Whether he's having his dancers leap through the air or embody living mannequins, Bergasse's choreography is both technically impressive and delightfully whimsical. All of the stagecraft advancements of the past 30 years have yet to top the unbridled thrill of seeing a stageful of dancers jump, twist, and pirouette in unison, and Bergasse delivers such sights in spades. In a show with four full fledged ballets and numerous large production numbers, Bergasse's inventiveness never falters, and hopefully we will be seeing much, much more of his work in the future.

On the Town is undeniably old fashioned, and it does possess a few conventions that have not aged particularly well. But on the whole this revival feels as fresh and vibrant as ever, with a top tier cast and creative team who are clearly having the time of their lives. Only the most curmudgeonly of audience members would be unable to recognize and enjoy this production's many strengths, and for fans of Golden Age Broadway this revival is a dream come true. For the show's duration, any and all troubles melt away, a rare and precious gift that On the Town bestows freely, and a breath of fresh air during these increasingly troubled times.

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