Last year Chicago audiences got their first taste of a musical theatre classic when the Marriott Theatre went “On the Town”. A critically acclaimed 70th anniversary Broadway revival followed, which has finally resulted in the show’s first complete Broadway cast album by PS Classics. With several excellent studio recordings available, not to mention the entertaining but highly revised film version starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra on DVD, it may come as a surprise that this fourth Broadway edition is actually the first to be recorded. Four of the original cast (including co-lyricists/performers Adolph Green and Betty Comden) did reassemble in 1960 to make a splendid audio recreation, supplemented by first-rate studio performers under the baton of the show’s own composer Leonard Bernstein. That has since been the recording of choice and by which future productions may be judged. Although a worthy release, the new cast album neither matches nor supplants it.
The Broadway (and indeed the America) of 70 years ago could hardly be more foreign to today. Even with economic uncertainty, rationing and the terror of the Second World War raging, we were still a largely united and ultimately optimistic country. The American Dream was still within reach for many, and a 24 hour shore leave held the promise of love, life and adventure. Even though the story of sailors on leave in the big city had been previously explored on stage, film and even ballet (Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free” would be its inspiration), “On the Town” nonetheless provided its young and zealous novice creators with a fertile groundwork for a seamless fusion of music, comedy and dance. The latter must, out of necessity, be imagined when assessing any audio recording, but Bernstein’s swinging dance friendly score easily conjures all the sparkling motion of World War II era Manhattan.
When “On the Town” first premiered in 1944, Bernstein was still more than a decade away from achieving his Broadway masterpiece with “West Side Story,” yet the dazzling synthesis of jazz, blues, classical and popular music is present and identifiable. This was an era in which “The Star Spangled Banner” topped off many a Broadway show, and that novelty has been recreated on the new CD. The legendary maestro’s composition was never fully appreciated, a fact glaringly evident when the MGM film creators all but obliterated Bernstein’s original score and substituted lesser compositions by studio composer Roger Edens. The irresistible original is all preserved, however, on PS Classics’ sumptuous 2-CD cast album: from the fervent “New York, New York” to the jaunty “Come Up to My Place,” the wistful “Some Other Time,” the standards “Lucky to Be Me” and “Lonely Town,” and the rarely heard “Gabey’s Comin’” among its gems.
Tony Yazbeck, not long ago splashing his way through “Singin’ in the Rain” at Drury Lane Oakbrook, gives a vocally thrilling performance as the romance-seeking sailor Gabey, entrusted with the lovely ballads “Lonely Town” and “Lucky to Be Me” and demonstrating a smooth and confident tenor. No less exciting are the jazzy stylings of Alysha Umphress as the man-hungry taxi driver Hildy, serving up every delicious lyrical entendre of “I Can Cook Too” with a sexy side of scat too. Broadway vets Michael Rupert and Jackie Hoffman make memorable supporting appearances, the latter with a hilarious segue way from Latin bombshell to bluesy Billie Holliday nightclub chanteuse.
Unfortunately, a few sour notes mar what is an otherwise lively, tuneful and nostalgic romp, with performances that exaggerate and mince so broadly that any believability disappears completely. Phillip Boykin’s rich, soulful bass provides a perfectly mellow introduction with “I feel like I’m not out of bed yet,” but he becomes cringe-worthy in the hammy spoken cameos that punctuate the “Presentation of Miss Turnstiles” and “Coney Island” sequences. Jay Armstrong Johnson’s exasperated responses to the suggestive “Come Up to My Place” are overwrought and annoying, and Elizabeth Stanley and Claude Alves take “Carried Away” to its truest meaning. Although I have only the audio recording to go by here, Director John Rando seems to have gotten “Carried Away” with the supposedly comic shtick of his performers’ interpretations.
The highlight of the album is actually the beautiful “Some Other Time,” delivered with gorgeous and refreshing sensitivity by Stanley, Umphress, Alves and Johnson. Just sample the melancholy longing of Comden and Green’s lyric: “When you’re in love time is precious stuff; even a lifetime isn’t enough.” When those words were first sung seven decades ago, there was an undeniable real life subtext that for our three American heroes in uniform those 24 hours might just be their last. Best to make every moment count, because “Some Other Time” may never arrive. Fortunately, time (if not Broadway fortune) has been kind to the ebullient score of “On the Town,” which never wears out its welcome. It’s a helluva score indeed.