Book and Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Based on an Idea by Jerrome Robbins
Directed by David H. Bell
Music Direction by Ryan T. Nelson
Choreographed by Alex Sanchez
At Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire
Exhilarating, high energy and hilarious Golden Age musical comedy come to life after 70 years
On the heals of the break-through musical play or situation musical, Oklahoma!, a troupe of young hungry artists collaborated to produce another ground-breaking musical comedy in 1944 – On The Town. Based on a ballet, “Fancy Free” by choreographer Jerome Robbins to music by Leonard Bernstein, they collaborated with a young Betty Comden and Adolph Green with the direction from George Abbott to create On The Town in 1944. This dance infused musical comedy contained a jazz/swing score with hints of classical motifs by Bernstein. It necessitated a cast of triple threat perfumers (sing, dance and act) who can do ballets movements as well as modern dance while also landing comedy.
Many fans of the old MGM musical films will remember the 1949 film with Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munsgin and Ann Miller but, keep in mind, that the film of On The Town is fun, it is not the same as the original stage musical since only two of Bernstein’s songs were used in the film. Speculation was that Gene Kelly objected to the score being to complex, too avant guard necessitating too much ballet movements.
In it first production since a brief touring production staring Nancy Walker in 1944, On The Town has never been mounted in Chicago until Terry James and David H. Bell and Alex Sanchez tackled this fabulous material. Bernstein’s unparalleled score brought contemporary jazz/swing sounds into a modern musical allowing Jerome Robbins to create high energy dances that captured the intensity of three sailors trying to have fun in New York City during their 24 hour leave during wartime. In Bell’s staging, the speed of even set and scene changes reflect the time urgency of the sailors. Living life to the fullest in the time you have sure was a wartime necessity.
Casting for this remount of On The Town was a major problem since the entire cast had to be triple threats, especially the main eight characters. Bell and Sanchez found players from both Chicago and New York to easily win our hearts and dance to the Robbins’ influenced dances choreographer by Sanchez.
Max Clayton (Gabey), Seth Danner (Chip), and Jeff Smith (Ozzie) were the lovable sailors who live a lifetime in a day in NYC. The tone is set in the fine “New York, New York” that exudes anticipation of fun. Their adventures are filled with funny turns as they meet aggressively interesting women who quickly tantalize the naive young sailors. In a 1944 musical, having such strong woman characters was Betty Comden’s contribution to musical comedy.
The taxi driver Hildy (the terrific Marya Grandy) hilariously seduces the shy Chip in the cute “Come Up to My Place” number. After Gabey falls for a photo of “Miss Turnstile,” Ivy Smith (Alison Jantzie), he gets his pals to help him find her. Ozzie ends up in a museum where he meets Claire ( the golden voiced Johanna McKenzie Miller) a scientist in search of all ‘primitive men.’ This meeting is funny and sensual as the prehistorical men come to life as Carrie and Ozzie bond.
Meanwhile, Gabey travels to Carnegie Hall in search of Ivy who is taking voice lessons from the drunken teacher Madame Maude (the hilarious Barbra Robertson). During his search, Gabey sings his bluesy “Lonely Town.” At Claire’s apartment, Ozzie meet her finance Pitkin (the funny Alex Goodrich) who always seems to say or sing: “I understand.” Back at Hildy’s place, she nails “I Can Cook Too” as she advances on Chip.
As the first act move forward, we hear Gabey and the Ensemble to the exhilarating “Luck to Be Me” and the wonderful “Times Square Ballet.”
The adventures keep happening in act two as events keep moving from Diamond Eddies Club to the Congscabana to Coney Island where there is “The Coney Island Ballet “(there are seven ballet numbers in this show!).
As the three sailors, in the hands of the spirited and aggressive women, have enough fun and romance to last a lifetime in one day. we enjoy their adventures as much as they do. We laugh at the vaudevillian comedy, the innocence of the sailors as we become captivated by the sheer energy and stage craft of the cast. The dances are filled with enough jumps and twirls to impress the Joffrey as the dancers impressively perform Alex Sanchez’s creatively complex high energy choreography. Seldom to you witness such exhilarating dancing on such a small in-the-round setting. The manic energy never stops.
The orchestra, under the leadership of music director Ryan T. Nelson and conductor Patti Garwood nailed Bernstein brass oriented swing influenced score nimbly.
With terrific comedy turn by Barbara Robertson, Alex Goodrich and Marya Grandy, On The Town has enough comedy to satisfy. The Bernstein score is superb, the characters lovable but what really makes On The Town sizzle is the non-stop energy especially from the ambitious ballet oriented choreography designed by Alex Sanchez that was danced to perfection by the talented cast.
Every element that makes for a “great” musical is present in Marriott Theatre’s landmark production. Fabulous dancing, hilarious situations, terrific characterizations played to their fullest and, of course, a world class score by a young Leonard Bernstein make On The Town a major triumph!
I can’t remember a finer production at Marriott Theatre (and I’ve seen many fabulous shows there). On The Town is a gem, a must see, and an another example what Chicago regional theatre can accomplish. Too bad it took 70 years to get this show mounted here. On The Town is one of the finest productions of 2014.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: August 20, 2014
For more info checkout the On The Town page at theatreinchicago.com
At Marriott Theatre, RT. 45 & RT. 21 in Lincolnshire, IL, call847-634-0200, www.marriotttheatre.com, tickets $40 – $48, Wednesdays. at 1 & 8 pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm , Saturdays at 4:30 & 8 pm, Sundays at 1 & 5 pm, running time is 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission, through October 12, 2014
A page from the 1946 On The Town Chicago production
(courtesy of Joe Stead)