They’ve forgotten to turn on the lights in the English National Opera’s perverse new staging of “On the Town,” a musical about an impossibly buoyant and liberating day on the loose in the Big Apple that here seems to take place in almost total darkness. The emphasis on subtext at the expense of what has actually been written (not every London musical revival can be the revelatory Nicholas Hytner “Carousel”) will simply confirm the prejudices of those Americans who despair — not always rightly — of the abiding British tendency to turn Broadway’s classic tuners on a notably anxious ear.
This production goes further still, taking a wartime Leonard Bernstein musical fringed with melancholy and plunging it into an all-but-meaningless abyss. What’s needed are some genuine Broadway smarts or, to put it another way, a leavening presence of, as the song title celebrates it, “New York, New York.”
You can see the acumen behind English helmer Jude Kelly’s take on a musical that is even less well known on the West End than it is on Broadway, where the last revival was a notable flop (as was tuner’s belated 1963 London bow). Sending three sailors from the stix on their giddy way through a New York as ripe with erotic possibility as it is frenetic, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s book joins with the rapturous Bernstein score to suggest this could well be the final fling of Gabey (Aaron Lazar), Chip (Adam Garcia), and Ozzie (Tim Howar) before the sorrowful ways of war swallow them whole.
But it’s one thing to allow mortality to linger in the background as a mournful counterpoint, which surfaces most rendingly in the great second-act threnody “Some Other Time,” with its nearly Beckettian song lyric: “Just when the fun’s beginning/Comes the final inning.” And it’s quite another to dampen a show about release and high spirits to such a degree that the joyfulness of much of the score seems like a tonal red herring, as if Bernstein & Co. had misgauged the affect of their own musical.
Perhaps Kelly felt “On the Town” wouldn’t have justified its place in an ENO repertoire alongside the likes of Alban Berg without taking its cue not from the high spirits of “New York, New York” but from the more plaintive moments of the lovesick Gabey and ballads like “Lonely Town.” But by externalizing the psychology of the piece to such an excessive degree, Kelly and her able if, on this occasion, misguided design team (Robert Jones, responsible for sets and costumes, and Mark Henderson, lights) have drained the piece of anything resembling joy.
Small wonder the opening-night aud sat stone-faced through some of the more droll passages of the book that can be tricky to land, even in the best of collaborative hands. How can you laugh at lines like “Any rare specimen of Claire’s is a rare specimen of mine” when the production seems to be inhabiting some mournful existential landscape, not the urban Elysium Jerome Robbins surely had in mind? (It was the Robbins-Bernstein one-act ballet “Fancy Free” that paved the way for this musical.)
As a result, it’s no surprise that for all the people (55 in the cast) deployed in this production — far more than any conventional Broadway or West End ensemble would allow — the vast Coliseum stage still feels oddly empty. The atmosphere tallies with the threat of death heralded in newspaper headlines that announce portentously, “Three ships hit; 561 dead.”
Amid such an environment (this is most defiantly a post-9/11 “On the Town”), there’s scant room for potential romance, even with two prospective lovers — Lucy Schaufer’s robustly funny yet also heart-stopping Claire de Loone and Howar’s buoyant, irrepressible Ozzie — well worth rooting for. Schaufer’s perf as the libidinous anthropologist is the production’s standout, though Shore’s hilariously empathic Pitkin lands every scene as well.
The biggest noise, inevitably, is made by the thesp cast as Hildy, the taxi-driving tornado whose sexual appetite is surely meant to be emblematic of the release on general offer in this show’s view of New York. The popular Caroline O’Connor brings her usual belt to the part and has the aud salivating at her every vampish move. But not for the first time, she seems to be playing to the footlights, not to her fellow cast members. Sounding like a Brooklyn-accented Betty Boop, O’Connor doesn’t so much sell the sizzle on “I Can Cook, Too” as steamroll it into submission; she’s too self-regarding by half.
That song’s vibrancy, too, cuts against the grain of a staging where people talk of it being 10:37 (that’s a.m.), even though it looks like midnight, and where the three sailors are seen huddling against the cold, even though Gabey’s elusive love object, Ivy Smith (a nice perf from “Grand Hotel’s” Helen Anker), is a summertime Miss Turnstiles.
By the time choreographer Stephen Mear’s shrug-inducing Coney Island ballet late in act two has been rewritten as a requiem, one is tempted to get into the construction-worker spirit of a production whose soundscape is rife with the heavy clanking of pulleys and cranes and request an “On the Town” built anew, fueled not by theories about the show but by real feeling.