Succinctly, “flat-out phenomenal” is the least that should be said about John Rando’s current staging of On the Town at Barrington Stage Company. As befits this late 1944 musical’s roots as a ballet by Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, Emmy Award-winning (Smash) choreographer Joshua Bergasse has the large cast up on their toes throughout the two-hour show about three sailors’ 24-hour shore leave in the Big Apple during World War II. But the main battle here is boys becoming men by getting New York ladies to become women. They all succeed, and the performers have as much fun on the stage as the audience members do in their seats.
From the opening image—a huge Stars and Stripes hung vertically downstage center, reflected by the mirror surface of the New York skyline across upstage—of Beowulf Boritt’s smartly rendered scene design under lighting designer Jason Lyons’ romantic Manhattan sunrise—to the last, this production hums along. It’s ballast filled with some surprisingly bawdy humor—these are seamen after dames, and these dames are shakin’ and bakin’—which includes both physical (low) comedy and clever wordplay (high comedy) that kept the audience laughing. But what fuels On the Town are the dances. Bergasse’s choreography and this multi-talented cast drew raves during intermission, and that was before On the Town hit its highlights.
While the playing of the National Anthem brought the crowd to their feet (to sing along) in the prologue, it was the dance—the soft shoe, salsa, tango, and the frequent (and beautiful) ballet pas de deux—that made the audience dance in their seats while applauding. While others advertise their “Broadway” series, usually with second national tours of shows, Barrington Stage Company offers the real deal—actual Broadway singers and dancers and director creating sizzling life out of 70-year-old words and notes on a page.
It would a sin to miss a moment of Tony Yazbeck dancing Gabey, the love-struck sailor from the hinterlands who falls head over heels at first sight of “Miss Turnstiles for June,” Ivy Smith (Deanna Doyle). This is the stuff Broadway talent is made of, and to see this cast dance through a series of Manhattan nightclubs, or sing and move to “New York, New York” in the Brooklyn Naval Yard (what should be NYC’s official anthem), or bump and grind to “I Can Cook Too” (Alysha Umphress’ bodacious Hildy Esterhazy should be a Coney Island thrill ride), is to feel perfection. On the Town doesn’t have an ersatz second in its two hour and 10 minute running time.
Yet there are two moments, one in Act 1 and the other near the end of Act 2 that transcend the giddy perfection of the comic lazzi and the dancing. When Yazbeck’s Gabey, in “Lonely Town” (Gene Kelly’s role in the 1949 film version; Yazbeck does Kelly proud), sings, “Unless there’s love/The world’s an empty place/And every town’s a lonely town,” alone in the dusk of Times Square, and then dances the aches of missed love, the audience is taken to the soul of a place that New York City is reluctant to reveal.
“Lonely Town” is matched by “Some Other Time,” performed by the cheating Claire (a full-bodied performance by Elizabeth Stanley), her sailor lover for a day Ozzie (Clyde Alves in the Frank Sinatra role, right down to the Superman curl on his forehead), the stunning Hildy (Umphress) and her sailor-boy Chip (the athletic comedian Jay Armstrong Johnson). The four sing a lament to the end of their 24-hour whirlwind romances, and the ache of regret is palpable.
These performances take the audience into something unexpected, rare, and above and beyond the call of duty. This On the Town truly should not be missed, and if you can catch this cast in their Friday night post-performance cabaret, where they promise to stretch their talents even more, you’ll be all the richer for it. That’s a souvenir you’ll long cherish.