“On the Town” is back on Broadway, and whaddya know, it’s still a helluva show. Helmer John Rando (who directed the musical at Barrington Stage last year) has given the kid-glove treatment to this 1944 musical salute to New York, fabled for its glorious score composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Joshua Bergasse’s choreography, classic in design and elegant in form, pays its respects to Jerome Robbins’ groundbreaking choreography, and although the young and vital cast is light on acting chops, the dancing is sensational.
The shadow of World War II was hanging over everyone’s head when this legendary show opened on Broadway 70 years ago, which must have lent real poignancy to the romantic fantasy of three sailors who are determined to see all of New York and find them some girls, too, during their 24-hour shore leave. But we’re not without our own shadows, which might explain why the sight of the gigantic stars-and-stripes on the stage curtain and the sound of the opening bars of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (in lieu of a formal overture) struck up by the 28-piece pit orchestra brought close to 2,000 theatergoers to their feet at a packed preview. There’s no such solemnity to be found in the production itself, though, and frankly, a bit of gravitas would have added some dimension to the generic sailors. But although the show’s comic elements are much giddier than they need to be, that must have seemed like the safest way to go with the show, given the limited acting range of some key players.
But who’s going to go to the mat on that, once Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and Ozzie (Clyde Alves) come bounding down the gangplank of their ship (highly stylized, as are all of Beowulf Boritt’s vividly hued sets) and break into a rousing version of “New York, New York.” The lyrics alone are enough to make any old grouch break out in a grin. But the sheer exuberance of the music (God bless that orchestra) gives wing to the ecstatic joy of the dance.
Once established, that dynamic spirit carries the boys from the Brooklyn Navy Yard onto the subway, where Yazbeck’s manly Gabey falls for the lovely face of this month’s Miss Turnstiles, Ivy Smith, played by Megan Fairchild, principal dancer with New York City Ballet. Naively certain they’ll find this lovely creature in one of her natural habitats, the three sailors split up and head for the city’s iconic destination settings, all displayed with wit by Boritt (and a lot of saturated color from lighting designer Jason Lyons).
Claire De Loone, the sex-loving anthropologist played with maniacal spirit by Elizabeth Stanley, grabs Ozzie at the Museum of Natural History. Hildy, the lady cab driver played with great comic gusto by Alysha Umphress, scoops up Chip by promising to take him on a tour of the city. This leaves Gabey alone to pour out his heart in “Lonely Town” (what a song!) and gives Yazbeck a moment of genuine glory.
The romance of the first act is overtaken by the show’s comic spirit in Act Two, when the sailors and their girls embark on a whirlwind tour of the city’s nightclubs and dives. All of them, that is, except for Ivy, who is working as a cooch dancer in Coney Island to pay Maude P. Dilly, her cruel singing teacher, played with her customary je ne sais quoi by Jackie Hoffman. (And do watch for that scene-stealer, clad in Jess Goldstein’s riotously funny costumes) to pop up everywhere in the nightclub scenes.)
Gabey is pretty glum in that act, but when he finally finds Ivy in his arms, in a fantasy pas de deux, both dancers are exquisite. Although nothing can top that breathtaking dance, “Some Other Time” comes closest to facing the ominous shadow that hangs over this wonderful, haunting show.