On the Town

My favorite ballet is Jerome Robbins’s NY Export: Opus Jazz, but the ballet that comes in at a close second is Robbins’s Fancy Free. It was the first ballet he created for New York City Ballet, and it marked his first collaboration with Leonard Bernstein. (The pair would continue to collaborate, most famously on West Side Story.) In about 20 minutes, Fancy Free tells the story of three sailors on leave in NYC. Not long after the ballet premiered, book writers and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green teamed with Bernstein to expand the story into a full length musical, and On the Town was born. ("...A risk was taken with On the Town and look what happened: Betty and Adolph burst onto the scene. A shout out to Comden and Green...")

While I know this is supposed to be about the three sailors, in this production, the town belongs to the women. New York City Ballet principal dancer Megan Fairchild (Double Feature) does nicely in her Broadway debut, and, fortunately, choreographer Josh Bergasse highlights her skills. She is given enough to show off her exceptional dancing, proving why the role of Ivy “Miss Turnstiles” Smith needs to be played by the ballerina, and not an actor who can dance.

Elizabeth Stanley (Merrily We Roll Along, Million Dollar Quartet) is going gleefully zany, though the role doesn’t require much of her vocally (which is a shame, because she has a terrific voice). What’s fun is that the way her hair is styled (or maybe it was just my view from the balcony), she looks like Lucille Ball and, indeed, Stanley’s Claire does provide much in the way of physical comedy and other antics. 

But for my money, the standout is my girl Alysha Umphress, finally getting her due. Of course, she was featured in American Idiot (listen to “Too Much Too Soon”) and had ensemble roles in other shows, like On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, but let’s hope her scene-stealing turn as Hildy is her breakout role, and plants her at the forefront of casting directors’ minds. Her “I Can Cook Too” number is definitely the highlight of act one, and she has a moment in act two when she’s called upon show off her scatting skills. Keep an eye on her.

Yet On the Town is, in fact, about the three sailors on leave in New York, New York (a helluva town) for 24 hours. So what about these sailors? They’re good, if a little lacking in chemistry and pizazz. Tony Yazbeck plays Gabey, the romantic of the group, who is after Miss Turnstiles. He’s a good looking guy with a strong voice and respectable dance abilities. He’s good on paper, but the “it” factor, some font of charisma, just isn’t there.

His pals are Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and Ozzie (Clyde Alves). These characters are more playful, and Johnson and Alves come through. Johnson (Hands on a Hardbody) is gangly and twitchy as Chip falls under Hildy’s spell, gamely tumbling around the stage. I also appreciate his earnestness so that Chip’s naiveté seems genuine and not like an anachronistic caricature. Alves leaves the weakest impression, which is not to say he’s bad in the role, only that there isn’t much for him to do. Both Johnson and Alves prove able partners with their respective ladies. 

On the whole, the show could use some tightening. I saw the revival early in previews, so it’s possible director John Rando has fixed the timing problems. When I saw it, the show dragged; it was a long two hours and 45 minutes. Some of the comic gags worked, but many were overkill. Perennial laugh factory Jackie Hoffman (The Addams Family) appears as several characters, and, it seems, has been given free reign to mug for laughs. With so much story to tell, and some extended dance sequences (though not enough; more on that next), I could do without the schticky bits slowing down the production. (I could also do without the act two number “I Understand,” performed by a minor character for no apparent purpose other than to allow for scene changes.)

On the Town is a song and dance show from the golden age of the broad musical comedy. Choreographer Josh Bergasse has clearly studied Fancy Free, as he borrow several choreographic phrases from the Robbins ballet. (Perhaps he’s seen his girlfriend, NYCB principal dancer Sara Mearns, in the piece.) I like that—I like acknowledging your progenitors while leaving your mark. 

But, and this is not necessary pinned entirely on Bergasse, there isn’t a great big song and dance number. I wanted an “Anything Goes” or “Too Darn Hot” type of show stopper, and I didn’t get it. I got glimpses of it, as well as a lovers pas de deux that was supposed to be a show stopper, but we just never quite got there. (As it was, when I saw the glimpses, some of the choreography needed sharpening.) That pas de deux is essentially a dream ballet, a musical theatre device used to great acclaim by Agnes DeMille in the original production of Oklahoma! It’s the moment when Gabey and Ivy are supposed to finally connect, after almost an entire day of missing each other. While Fairchild dances beautifully and Yazbeck proves an able partner, there is no heat, no urgency. It is supposed to be the 11 o’clock number but instead of just kind of sputters.

It’s disappointing to see an underwhelming production of a good show. In fairness, I think this will actually be a crowd-pleaser. It’s a relatively wholesome show with a decent amount of flash. I think the New York theatre audience, having seen more and perhaps having seen the brilliant NYCB dancers perform Fancy Free, will scoff at the mediocrity, but general audiences will delight at the spectacle, including Leonard Bernstein’s helluva score played by a 28-piece orchestra (a triumph for Broadway these days).