The Bronx is still up and the Battery down, and “On the Town” remains a helluva show. That’s the word just in from City Center, where Encores! has contributed to this fall’s cornucopious Leonard Bernstein festival with the musical that first took the remarkable Lenny out of the concert hall and put him on the showbiz A-list.
The new-style comedy musical from twentysomethings Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden and Adolph Green burst upon the scene in the final days of 1944. The very aspects that made it so startlingly refreshing — all that high-quality Robbins dance set against the propulsive energy of wartime “New York, New York” — have led to a problematic afterlife, with two full-scale Broadway revivals laying ostrich eggs. This Encores! rendition easily outclasses both of those attempts.
Bernstein’s music is front and center — literally so, with Todd Ellison’s 30-piece orchestra planted firmly and prominently. Director John Rando has placed his scenes way downstage, relegating the dance component to an upstage platform. This is a fine solution for the material, with the added bonus of making the orchestra — and the vibrant orchestrations — more audible than usual. At the same time, one fears for the sightlines from the upper reaches of the cavernous house.
Acting honors are purloined by Andrea Martin, playing the heretofore minor role of a dipsomaniacal vocal coach. Martin is so over the top that her recent turn as Frau Blucher in “Young Frankenstein” seems subtle in comparison.
Jennifer Laura Thompson (of “Urinetown”) and Christian Borle (of “Legally Blonde”) score heartily as the man-hungry anthropologist and her very own Pithecanthropus Erectus; Tony Yazbeck (the “All I Need Is the Girl” boy from the current “Gypsy”) and Jessica Lee Goldyn (the “Dance Ten: Looks Three” girl of the recent “Chorus Line”) are fine as the lovelorn sailor and his Miss Turnstiles. Justin Bohon does OK in the underwritten role of Chip, with sturdy support coming from Michael Cumpsty and Julyana Soelistyo.
Which leaves Leslie Kritzer (of “A Catered Affair”) as man-eating cabbie Hildy. This role was written to order for Nancy Walker, a burlesque buffoon with a heart of taffy. The major standouts in the revivals were Bernadette Peters, who played her as a kewpie doll running on Energizer batteries in Ron Field’s 1981 version, and Lea DeLaria, a barracuda in a pool of blood-colored fruit punch for George C. Wolfe in 1998. Kritzer is a talented musical comedienne, but she acts the role rather than inflating it. There is a natural-born Hildy up there on the City Center stage, but her name is Andrea Martin.
The songs remain fresh and pert. “New York, New York,” with all those people riding in a hole in the ground, retains its brash charm; the romantic ballads, “Lonely Town” and “Lucky to Be Me,” fill the hall as performed by the strong-voiced Yazbeck; and “Some Other Time” remains the show’s disarming secret weapon, interrupting the frenzied final chase with heart-tugging poignancy as the bright-faced gobs and their just-found girls contemplate the boys’ immediate shipment back to the war zone.
Robbins’ original choreography is long lost. Hazily remembered reconstructions of one ballet and two musical numbers — devised for “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” in 1989 — are restaged by Scott Wise, who won a featured actor Tony as lead dancer in that revue.
Choreographer Warren Carlyle does an impressive job on the balance of the dance-heavy show, given the abbreviated Encores! rehearsal schedule; it’s impossible for him to do in 12 days what Robbins did in a month. He makes the most of it, although his second act ballets run out of steam. This effort marks a heartening return for Carlyle, who recently braved the guillotine as director-choreographer of the short-lived “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Comden and Green here devised a new, fast-and-breezy type of script, but they hadn’t yet quite worked it out. The whole shebang is built on a not-very-convincing chase mixed with a not-very-funny recurring gag, which was a minor flaw in 1944 and remains so. But director Rando and adapter David Ives, both Encores! veterans, skillfully gloss over any weaknesses and make a convincing case for Lenny & Betty & Adolph’s bright and frisky firstborn.