Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Hats off to On the Town

Phil Tayler, Zach Eisenstat and John Ambrosino go  . .. well, On the Town.  Photos: Mark S. Howard

The original musical On the Town has been so overshadowed by its 1949 film treatment (an Oscar-winner that starred Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller and Vera-Ellen) that the current Lyric Stage production (through this weekend only) almost feels like a discovery. The movie is a monument in Hollywood history (not only was it the first musical shot on location, but it also marks the first time Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen co-directed a full film); but the MGM suits yanked most of Leonard Bernstein's subtler songs (they found them "complex" and "operatic"), and replaced them with broader numbers by producer Roger Edens - a talented mainstay of the Freed Unit, but there's a reason why you've never heard of him.

Happily, however, Bernstein's original melodies survive in the score of the stage show, which was a spin-off of Jerome Robbins' ballet Fancy Free (which Boston Ballet staged just last year) - itself a spin-off of Paul Cadmus's sardonically homo-erotic The Fleet's In! (below- a WPA commission, believe it or not, that caught the eye of the closeted choreographer).

In Fancy Free, Robbins largely dropped Cadmus's gay subtext (let alone the suggestion of marijuana use), but still conjured a surprisingly dark look at a trio of sailors on leave, whose lonely, frustrated aggression eventually thwarts their sexual impulses (their girls wind up fleeing their brawling). The musical sweetened things even further, keeping the sex but deep-sixing the violence; and just as the jump from Robbins to Bernstein marked another step into the closet, so On the Town all but reversed the content of the original Cadmus source (as often happens in the long arcs that cultural material charts through the pop firmament).

Paul Cadmus' The Fleet's In! of 1934 - the source inspiration for On the Town

Indeed, in the musical version, it's the women who are most often amusingly on the make: one of the leading ladies, for instance, primly explains that she gets "carried away" with prime specimens of homo erectus (her words, not mine), while another simply suggests to sailors, "Why don't we go up to my place?," and the third, we learn, earns her living as an exotic dancer (even though she has won the title of "Miss Turnstiles").  Meanwhile the sailors, though horny, hardly seem worldly - indeed, one of them is probably a virgin, while another dreams of finding true love during a 24-hour leave; only one of them has his eye on the main chance, and even he's a softie.

So don't worry, On the Town reliably diverts its erotic undercurrents into proper romantic yearnings - but only barely; make no mistake, it's about sex, and in a refreshingly honest way. But then it bloomed during a brief period (roughly the war years) in which nice girls were allowed to have sex lives onstage, at least with virginal servicemen; and of course its lyrics and book were penned by Adolph Green and the irrepressible Betty Comden (née Basya Cohen), who more than anyone since Fanny Brice imprinted our musical theatre with the perspective of the smart, snappy Jewish-American girl who has been around the block and seen a thing or two.

Not that Comden, Green and Bernstein (who once were a variety act!) ignored the emotional subtexts of their story - indeed, the loneliness of Fancy Free haunts On the Town - it's essentially what the Freed Unit left out of their happy, back-slapping slab of Americana. At the Lyric, however, the piece's wistfulness often comes center stage, in such forgotten Bernstein classics as "Lonely Town" and particularly the poignant "Some Other Time," which has always seemed to hover on the verge of becoming a standard (which it deserves to be).

Michele A. DeLuca knows where she'd like to take Phil Tayler.
Of course balancing these winsome touches are the bold strokes of "Carried Away," "I Can Cook, Too," (lyrics by Bernstein himself) and the classic "New York, New York" - surely one of the catchiest numbers ever concocted. The Lyric version actually gives full  weight to both sides of the musical's emotional coin - although I have to say that on opening night, it hadn't quite coalesced.  I have a hunch it has found its groove by now - this is one of those cases in which artistic director Spiro Veloudos has attempted to shoehorn a big show into an intimate space, and while I can't really fault him for that (who doesn't have a soft spot for On the Town?) a few of the dance numbers feel slightly cramped, and some of his stars are pushed beyond their musical comfort zone (one untrained singer, for instance, often lands about a quarter-step south of where he should be when he's singing harmony).

None of these flaws prove fatal, however, and if a few performers seemed to be operating on technical cues  - well, again,  I'm guessing the emotional essence of what they're doing has sunk in by now. The standouts of the cast are Aimee Doherty and Phil Tayler, by now Boston's go-to duo for musical theatre; Doherty as usual looks like a million bucks, and sounds like a million more; she actually doesn't have too much chemistry with her assigned sailor, the effervescent Zach Eisenstat (who  in general feels like a force of nature, and can pull off a mean back flip to boot), but maybe she doesn't have to when she's got the comic timing she displays here (intriguingly, Doherty actually connects more with the fiancé she throws over in the script, a highly amusing J.T. Turner).  Tayler, like Doherty, was born to do musical comedy, and nails all his bits, even if (again) he hadn't quite found his inner shrinking violet on opening night, nor learned how to open up to the advances of the talented Michele A. DeLuca, whom we really don't see enough of on our local stages, and who brought real fire to "I Can Cook, Too."

But wait, there's more.  Sometimes local light John Ambrosino strikes me as a little distant, but here his melancholy worked well for the lovestruck Gabey (and his vocal chops were quite welcome on numbers like "Lonely Town"), while radiant newcomer Lauren Gemelli made me forget all about silly old Vera-Ellen as Miss Turnstiles. Local legend Sarah deLima likewise eclipsed the Hollywood incarnation of her character, a daffy artiste who keeps the plot (such as it is) in motion. 

There was even more talent around the edges of the production - Maurice Emmanuel Parent, usually a headliner, essayed a number of supporting and dance-oriented roles, while bass baritone Rishi Basu brought a welcome heft to the vocal lines. Choreographer Ilyse Robbins had clearly studied the dance style of that other Robbins, and often triumphed against the limits of the Lyric's space; Kathleen Doyle's costume design was period-perfect; and Seághan McKay's projections went a long way toward giving the show something of the film version's fluidity and scope (particularly when a subway rumbled by).  All in all, Veloudos has assembled a startling array of talent on the Lyric stage, and we're unlikely to see any local cast do better by the full emotional range of On the Town.

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