Broadways and Means

In another era, on a different Broadway, I might not be so enthused about this revival of On the Town; you'll find quibbles in plenty below. But why kid ourselves? If a musical's supposed to transport you to another world, I'd rather be in the world of On the Town, even as renovated here, than in that of any other current Broadway musical, at least until somebody leverages the script and Elton John out of The Lion King, or lights a firecracker under Ragtime. The rest are, frankly, garbage for tone-deaf peasants, at elite prices. (Minor exception: Titanic, the oratorio for people who can't take their Elgar unplugged.) Those musical Darwinians who think the form has been evolving toward maturity must find today's Broadway a sorry sight.

Not that we can ever, as they sing in Ragtime, "go back to before." The context of On the Town's birth is especially unrecapturable: It opened in December 1944; thousands of uniformed Americans were still overseas. Virtually every ticket holder must have had a son, a brother, a lover, a spouse, or a friend in combat. New York was a madhouse of refugees, wartime bureaucrats, and servicemen on leave. The city's atmosphere has never been so fevered since.

On the Town rode in on the wave of that frenzy, and won hearts by dancing lightly over its crest. To revive it today, you have to create onstage an atmosphere that no longer exists, and then make it live in a way that speaks to today's public.

Mary Testa, Perry Laylon Ojeda, and significant glassware in On the Town: our urban craziness as the characters' problem, and their ultimate joy
Michael Daniel
Mary Testa, Perry Laylon Ojeda, and significant glassware in On the Town: our urban craziness as the characters' problem, and their ultimate joy

Details

On the Town
By Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Gershwin Theatre
Broadway and 51st Street
307-4100

Forbidden Broadway Cleans Up Its Act
By Gerard Alessandrini
Stardust Theatre
Broadway and 51st Street
239-6200

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Inevitably, George C. Wolfe's version will seem a little bland and coolish by comparison. Inevitably, too, it's lost some of its own moonstruck charm by moving from the Delacorte, where set designer Adrianne Lobel got such terrific help from Olmsted and Vaux. But the way some of my colleagues rage on, you'd think Wolfe had done something truly hideous, like the score for The Scarlet Pimpernel. Okay, so the choreography, even after doctoring, hasn't improved that much, but at least it looks like dancing now. I won't pretend that I'm wild about Kevin Stites's musical direction; his rigid beat is a real hindrance to the ballads. Still, each time someone swings into an up number, you get that raucous, syncopated, Bernstein thrill, and everything's okay.

That's the feeling musicals are supposed to give, and On the Town is the only one on Broadway— apart from Lion King and Ragtime (with aforesaid reservations)— to offer any reasonable amount of it. Comden and Green cleverly built the work as an objective correlative for the audience's problem: You finally have to go back to reality, just as the three sailors have to get back to their ship. But the reality you have to face is their dilemma and ultimately their joy: the craziness of New York. You're the crowds getting in their way as they try to find each other. The sensible moral: It doesn't pay to be priggish; you might end up on a wild-goose chase, like the law-and-order prudes who pursue Gabey and his pals from the subway start to the Coney Island finish.

Like much of Wolfe's staging, the antics of the pursuing prudes are less nuanced, and hence less funny, than they ought to be. His direction tends to explain what's going on, rather than simply let it happen. His principals, on the other hand, seem to have been left freer, and some of them have improved perceptibly since the Park. Jesse Tyler Ferguson's Chip now displays a goofy, aw-shucks ease that makes him a partner, instead of a prop, for Lea DeLaria's fierce energy. Sarah Knowlton's Claire, half elegant composure and half spastic dislocation, builds an almost perfect bridge from 1944's more brittle comic style to today's. And the new Gabey, Perry Laylon Ojeda, if vocally unexciting, is both better looking and a better actor than his Park predecessor.

Best of all, On the Town is like today's New York in having twin towers— of comedy. Lea DeLaria and Mary Testa have little in common, other than not being sylphlike in shape. DeLaria, carrying a major role, proceeds by what they used to call main force, projecting so much energy it's a wonder she doesn't burn out the building's circuitry. Her power tends to come out largely unmodulated, but who cares, when it comes out so triumphantly? Testa, with a smaller role and a few million kilowatts less ferocity, uses subtler tactics. As Madame Dilly, the alcoholic singing teacher who plays nemesis to Gabey and Ivy's romance, she gets her laughs by sheer disassociation, staring at the bottle she's retrieved from inside the piano as if she hadn't the faintest idea who put it there. Always on the make, concealing even from herself who she really is, she makes a matched pair with DeLaria's gloriously crude, good-hearted, appetitive Hildy— cartoon caryatids of NYC fakery and blunt truth.

Granted, On the Town ought to be blow-you-away great, and isn't; it's pleasant fun that reminds you what blow-you-away greatness used to be. But compared to the dental-drill torments that surround it, with their dank, tin-eared earnestness, it's practically manna from heaven. If Wolfe and his colleagues haven't got the recipe for manna just right, at least they're trying to cook up something other than the sand and locusts that have been the musical theater's diet during these desert decades.

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