Sunday, November 23, 2008

Encores: On the Town

Is On the Town the best Encores! revival or one of the very best? I've gotten word that some people are seriously weighing that question. Having attended Thursday night's performance, I don't count myself among them even though I still think the production is worth attending. (With respect to a longstanding BAT tendency to blog tardily, today is the last performance.)

For me the main (but not the only) reason to see this revival is...historical. From the opening performance of The Star-Spangled Banner to the subsequent delivery of Leonard Bernstein's full score, here's a chance to get a good feel for this 1944 musical made in collaboration with choreographer Jerome Robbins and writers/performers/comedians Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Together with director George Abbott and designer/co-producer Oliver Smith, they put On the Town on Broadway together within a year of the work that inspired it, the Robbins-Bernstein ballet Fancy Free.

I concur with Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel's assessment of the musical in his program notes:
On the Town, for all of its intricate music and dance sequences, operates with what now might be considered reckless abandon. Its plot, concocted by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is a series of sketches, its characters are eccentric types, and its treatment of shore leave for three sailors destined to go off to war is casual and light...."
Indeed, the work strikes me more than ever as a kind of ambitious, plot-linked, burlesque revue with blackout sketches, dance acts, and comedic caricatures—just the kind of thing you might expect from Comden and Green, who at the time were attracting audiences with their musical improvisations (accompanied by Bernstein on piano) in Greenwich Village. This production moves in that direction, but I think it could have gone even farther with good results.

That might help to explain why some of the show's relatively minor parts were among its most successful. Andrea Martin is a hit as the drunken music teacher Maude P. Dilly and Geno Segers made a strong impression singing as the First Workman, but my very favorite performer of the evening was Michael Cumpsty as the "understanding" fiance of the nymphomaniac Claire de Loone. It was also good to see Julyana Soelistyo, a BAT favorite from The Glorious Ones, in the bit part of Lucy Schmeeler. Leslie Kritzer and Jennifer Laura Thompson offered bright moments as Hildy Esterhazy and Claire (respectively), and Justin Bohon, Christian Borle, and Tony Yazbek were good as the three sailors (their five-person dance in "Ya Got Me" was a highlight), but costuming and direction might have helped distinguish the male leads, broadcasting their characters to the audience more.

As for the Bernstein score, I developed a new appreciation of his influences at this early stage of his career. There are strong strains of modernism (European as well as American) and jazz and Cuban music that seemed to stick with the composer throughout his career, but there are also some old-fashioned, much more corny, "lyrical" passages that he (along with Broadway composers in general) discarded over the ensuing years. I also realized how Bernstein & Company seemed to seize upon developments associated with the big wartime hit Oklahoma! (1943), such as the incorporation of dance sequences.

The unusual staging of this production removes sightlines on the upper levels of the theater, which led City Center to almost randomly move some subscribers from central seats in the rear gallery to seats on the sides of the problematic rear mezzanine section. The view from a side of the rear mezzanine wasn't blocked by other audience members (as can be the case with the middle of the rear mezzanine), but there was still only a partial view of the stage.

Tip: To see a kind of movie "sequel" to On the Town, try the edgy 1955 musical It's Always Fair Weather—especially if it's in a movie theater or you can see it on a wide TV screen. Come to think of it, I'd like to see a stage version of this—perhaps it could alternate with a production of On the Town!

Source (3:20)

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