As brash as a New York cabdriver (and sometimes as erratic), George C. Wolfe’s outdoor staging of “On the Town” is a broad, feisty musical with all the punch and swing of a Big Band. What better use for Central Park’s open-air Delacorte Theater in late summer than this sloppy wet kiss to 1940s Gotham?
But if the show is to make a successful transition to a Broadway theater later this season, as has been suggested, some fine-tuning (and maybe even some recasting) is in order. The jazz ballet choreography that is such a lovely, integral part of the musical too often lacks the sultry grace (in both performance and insertion into the action) that could lift the show beyond expectations, and several standout performances — notably a startling, star-making turn from comic Lea DeLaria — point up the shortcomings of others in the cast.
Wolfe’s decision to fill the stage with young unknowns was a sound one, gleefully underscoring the youthful wartime exuberance that Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green so brilliantly captured in their 1944 score.
Still, the charisma — which is not to say the famous name — that Gene Kelly so memorably brought to the heavily revamped 1949 film version is lacking among the three actors in the central roles of the sailors on leave.
The story, based on Jerome Robbins’ ballet “Fancy Free,” is a delightful mix of innocence and sophistication, set in a fantasy New York where sailors can still fall naively in love with pinup girls, and career gals can celebrate an independence (yes, sex included) that was intoxicatingly new at mid-century.
And celebrate they do, all within 24 hours. Gabey (Jose Llana), Ozzie (Robert Montano) and Chip (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) are sailors on shore leave in Manhattan with only one day — and night — to cut loose before heading off to (the unnamed) war. Gabey, the soulful one, has become entranced with a subway poster depicting that month’s Miss Turnstiles, and his two pals — guidebook-toting hick Chip and slickster Ozzie — agree to spend the day traipsing from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Times Square, Coney Island, a museum and several nightclubs in between, all in search of the girl.
Needless to say, each bell-bottomed mariner finds a girl of his own. Ozzie teams up with a sexy anthropologist named Claire DeLoone (Kate Suber), Chip hooks up with brassy, sexually voracious cab driver Hildy (DeLaria), and, yes, Gabey improbably meets Ivy Smith (Sophia Salguero), the poster girl of his fantasies, even if she isn’t exactly as advertised.
Each of the love stories has a built-in comic complication, giving Wolfe and his cast a chance to really have some fun. Thwarting the Gabey-Ivy romance (and stealing several scenes in the bargain) is Mary Testa as Madame Maude P. Dilly, Ivy’s drunken, meddlesome voice teacher. Chip and Hildy (played by the best-matched pair of the production, he a gawky, freckle-faced redhead, she a short, heavy-set powerhouse) are forever interrupted by Hildy’s sniveling, sad-sack roommate, Lucy Schmeeler (Annie Golden), while Ozzie and Claire spend much time dodging Claire’s milquetoast fiance, Pitkin W. Bridgework (Jonathan Freeman).
“On the Town,” with its ensemble of dancing servicemen and secretaries whose honking New York accents are perfect accoutrements to Paul Tazewell’s garish 1940s costumes, never stops moving below the huge steel bridge that looms eye-poppingly over the stage (set designer Adrianne Lobel’s amalgam of real Gotham bridges is functional as well, serving as a perch for the brass-heavy orchestra). Eliot Feld’s all-new choreography is a modernist fusion of ballet, jazz and musical-theater styles nicely blended together even while falling short of full impact.
Several numbers — the “Lonely Town” pas de deux, a dreamy latenight subway ride with strap-hangers swaying in slow motion and a fantasy sequence in which Gabey imagines Coney Island as a gathering place of tuxedoed sophisticates and dazzling (literally) beauties — are at present more exciting in promise than execution.
No surprise that the songs, with music by Bernstein and lyrics by Comden and Green, show more polish. From bluesy ballads that are wistful without being mawkish (“Lonely Town,” “Some Other Time”) to buoyant bursts of wartime optimism (“Lucky to Be Me,” “Ya Got Me”), the score is, if not a masterpiece, at the very least a portent of the accomplishments that each of the artists would later claim.
One wishes that Wolfe had taken greater theatrical advantage of the best-known song, “New York, New York,” but DeLaria’s brassy, brawny charge through the lustily comic “I Can Cook Too” makes up for a lot. With this performance, the lesbian comic known mostly to gay audiences surprises with a talent for acting and singing that won’t likely go untapped again.
Both DeLaria and Testa find their performances in broad comic strokes, outshining the three male leads. Ferguson, as the yokel, plays well enough off DeLaria’s bravado, and both Llana (as Gabey) and Salguero (as Ivy) are sweet, and sweet-voiced. But neither Montano nor his director has found a personality for Ozzie, a void the actor fills with mugging.
As his partner, the sexy anthropologist Claire, Suber goes for a similar cartoonish approach without finding the comic payoff; perhaps a more urbane screwball style (seen “Bringing Up Baby” lately?) would suit the Ozzie-Claire duo, and provide the production with another layer of comic texture. This “On the Town” deserves more work. Broadway’s waiting.