‘Town’ takes on opera

Kelly's new staging to bow March 10

LONDON — Amid a London season laden with musicals, a Broadway classic is tuning up for a major production in an unlikely context: the repertory of English National Opera at the 2,364-seat London Coliseum.

That’s where the curtain will rise March 10 on helmer Jude Kelly’s new staging of “On the Town,” the Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden/Adolph Green musical. Production will play 17 perfs through May 24, weaving in and out of an operatic rep that includes “The Barber of Seville,” “Lulu” and “The Twilight of the Gods,” the culmination of ENO’s “Ring” cycle.

What is this 1944 Broadway entry doing in such company? Carving out a niche for itself at a time when the distinctions between opera and musical theater are getting ever more blurred. London’s Royal Opera House, for instance, recently produced Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” to mixed reviews, while Opera North — based in the Yorkshire city of Leeds — had better results with Kurt Weill’s “One Touch of Venus” and its own staging of “Sweeney.”

John Berry, director of opera programming at ENO, explained the reasoning behind turning toward “On the Town.” “People spend too much time trying to define what opera is and what music theater is. The way I come at it, we’re a company with an orchestra and a chorus, so we can be extremely versatile in terms of what we do.”

It doesn’t hurt that the Coliseum, London’s largest theater, has a history of also hosting dance, so it makes sense to host a dance-heavy musical. The Mark Morris Dance Troupe has appeared there to great acclaim, as has English National Ballet. Next season, ENO will produce Purcell’s “King Arthur,” in association with Morris’ company.

“On the Town,” says Berry, isn’t costing ENO any more than would a new production of, for instance, “La Traviata” — “a fraction” the cost of reviving the Bernstein musical commercially. Coming in at well under £1 million ($1.9 million), this staging is both far bigger and much less costly than the last Broadway revival of the show, the $5 million flop version, directed by George C. Wolfe, from 1998.

Tickets top out at £77 ($148) for prime seats on a Saturday night. That’s pricey by comparison with Broadway (though not if one takes premium tickets into consideration). Then again, rare is the Broadway show these days with a company of 55 and a 48-piece orchestra. West End conductor Simon Lee is making his debut in the ENO pit.

Kelly, the director, started with the notion of “On the Town,” she told Variety, “being a piece of music. I came to ENO knowing the scale of the orchestra and the idea of the number of people you could use to make New York visible. I basically wanted the masses of people: to have the three sailors against the multitudes.”

Playing the randy trio who are on shore leave in Manhattan for 24 hours during World War II are Broadway’s Aaron Lazar, who is American; Aussie film and stage performer Adam Garcia; and Canadian Timothy Howar, who recently led the West End cast of Rod Stewart musical “Tonight’s the Night.” The opera world is repped by Chicagoan Lucy Schaufer as Claire de Loone, Andrew Shore and the great Willard White in a cameo appearance at the start.

Some have already griped about the ENO having to mike the musical in what is, after all, an opera house: London’s Evening Standard went so far as to call for ENO resignations over the issue.

But Lee, the conductor, said miking was essential: “Shows like this were not designed for houses as big as the Coliseum. It’s just to make sure, this being a musical comedy, that everyone hears the words.” (Indeed, “On the Town” first played London in 1963, with Elliott Gould, at the Prince of Wales, which is a conventional musical house, not an opera venue.)

In recent years, the show has been seen in London solely in concert — in 2000 at the Royal Festival Hall, with Kim Criswell and Brent Barrett, and in 1992 at the Barbican Center, starring Tyne Daly and Frederica von Stade.

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