If you’re wary of going to New York in the summer because of the oppressive humidity and unbearable heat, then head straight to the Barrington Stage Company where their take on the Big Apple proves to be one of the most refreshing, delightful and invigorating experiences you are bound to have this summer.
John Rando’s production of the classic Leonard Bernstein, Adolph Green and Betty Comden musical “On the Town,” is a funny, warm-hearted vision that captures the eager naivete of youth, in this case three young sailors about to be shipped out to do battle in World War II, who embrace their 24 hours of shore leave in New York with an ebullience and optimism that is unabashedly contagious. The 1944 original was inspired by Jerome Robbins’ brief ballet “Fancy Free” who joined the creative team to stage the full production, which mixes exquisite music, witty lyrics and plenty of opportunities for dance. “On The Town” in its own way was a celebration of its original creators’ own youth. They took chances; they mixed cynicism with genuine humor; and they acknowledged, albeit in a loving, subtle way, the feelings of service members about to defend their country and the impact on the loved ones they left behind.
Rando and his expert choreographer, Emmy winner Joshua Bergasse, fill the BSC’s Mainstage with joyful movement and stunning images that thrill the eyes, building upon the BSC’s reputation for offering world-class musical productions in a summer setting. They have cast the production with a mix of emerging Broadway talents and engaging main stem veterans who establish spot-on characterizations and immediately connect with a very receptive audience. This allows the arc of the plot to proceed on its merry and quirky way, leading to a poignancy and emotional resonance just sneaks up on you as you realize you’ve just wiped a tear or two from your eyes.
The three sailors are each given individualized and distinct characterizations by the remarkable trio of actor-singer-dancers who jump onto the stage with joyous abandon as they prepare to tackle their first visit to this massive metropolis. Tony Yazbeck demonstrates a virile athleticism and a sturdy singing voice as the heroic Gabey (let’s not forget that he recently saved his two comrades from drowning which explains their undivided loyalty to him) who is determined to meet the girl of his dreams, that month’s Miss Turnstiles, Ivy Smith, before he must return to his ship the following morning at 6 a.m.
His two comrades, equally accomplished singers and dancers, offer quirky yet intelligent takes on their roles, with Jay Armstrong Johnson as the more intellectual Chip who wants to pack two weeks of sight seeing into a single day and Clyde Alves as the lovable goofball Ozzie whose exuberance seems to know no bounds. But both performers add a great deal of depth to both characters, supplying them with unique personalities that make them interesting to watch and enjoyable to spend time with. Before we know it, we’re on their sides, eagerly following them as they split up to help Gabey locate his dream date.
Along the way, Chip meets the Brooklyn-bred, tough as nails cab drive Hildy (short for Brunhilde, of course) who sets her sights on the initially wary young tar. Careening through the city looking for long-gone landmarks and finally settling into her apartment where she informs Chip that “I Can Cook Too,” he willingly succumbs to her charms and, all of a sudden, we’re invested in them too. Alysha Umphress is a deliciously brassy, slightly larger than life Hildy, irresistibly overbearing in her determination to hook this guy, yet demonstrating excellent vocal chops whether delivering jazzy scats or joining in on a tender ballad.
Ozzie’s neanderthal ways captivate a repressed anthropologist, Claire de Looe, played by Broadway up and comer Elizabeth Stanley, who’s willing to abandon her textbooks, her research and ultimately her long-suffering fiance, for the chance to get to know Ozzie better. Having seen Stanley in several New York shows, I know she has a great voice, which she gets to show off here in such numbers as “I Get Carried Away,” She has a dazzling stage presence that allows her initially dignified professor to believably melt into a confident romantic, nicely complementing Ozzie’s antics.
Deanna Doyle is lovely and mesmerizing in the predominantly dancing role of Ivy Smith, conveying her character’s honesty and vulnerability through often challenging yet exciting movement. Yazbeck, who has impressed Broadway with his dancing ability as well, is a great match, especially in a dream ballet that imagines a Coney Island as a high class playground of the rich.
Several Broadway veterans lend their talents to adding some humor and character to the proceedings, particularly Nancy Opel, who shares her comedic abilities as Ivy’s constantly inebriated singing instructor, the formidable Maude P. Dilly, and as two different nightclub singers who both know how to bring down a house, as in sing a number that depresses everyone in sight. Michael Rupert adds some distinguished amiability to Claire’s fiance, Judge Pitkin, whose understanding of his fiancee’s behavior seemingly knows no bounds. Gordon Stanley offers his usual invaluable support in a number of smaller roles.
Bergasse’s choreography often pays tribute to the Robbins’ style, but, as befits a choreographer who had to create new dances every week for the television show “Smash,” he suffuses the dances with clever ideas of his own, so that they remain consistently interesting and creative. The ensemble embraces his ingenuity with remarkable dexterity and commitment.
Set designer Beowulf Boritt has provided some clever backdrops and utilizes carefully-selected pieces of furniture that convey the sense of place, yet leave plenty of room for the dancers to perform. Bergasse and Rando also rely on the cast and dancers to suggest locales, as when they extend their hands as subway straphangers, with essential support from lighting designer Jason Lyons. Costume designer Jennifer Caprio has clearly had fun garbing the cast in 1940’s business attire, leisure wear, military uniforms, formal wear and amusingly memorable night club outfits. Darren R. Cohen handles the music director assignment with skill, making his 11-piece orchestra sound like 30.
What I liked the best about this production is that Rando clearly respects and admires this work that contains some of Bernstein’s best show tunes and some of Comden and Green’s best humor. Just look at the names of some of the characters they created: Judge Pitkin P. Bridgework, Professor Waldo Figment, Claire de Loone, Lucy Schmeeler-you can almost see them giggling on the couch in Comden’s apartment where they frequently collaborated.
Rando also shows off the music and lyrics to their best emotional advantage. Yazbeck’s “Lucky to be Me” is transformative, while Stanley, Umphress, Alves and Johnson are touching in that anthem of rueful regret “Some Other Time.” At the same time, he brings to the surface the very real concerns of sailors on their last leave. I don’t think I’ve seen a production of “On the Town,” that showcases the three male leads’ bare torsos or suggests the eagerness in which they retreat to the bedrooms (or living rooms) of their girlfriends’ apartments, with clothes thrown in from the sidelines. Yes, the evening remains wholesome, but one appreciates Rando’s honesty about the situation.
For a cool dip, you don’t have to jump into a nearby lake or a pool. The BSC production of “On the Town” can provide that needed break from the heat with a refreshing “heat” all of its own, one that allows you to emerge refreshed and rejuvenated with a renewed appreciation for the exuberance of life.
For information and tickets, contact the Barrington Stage Company Box Offce at 413.236.8888 or visit their website at www.barringtonstageco.org.