Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein were brash 20-somethings when they shook up the musical theater world with their highly innovative On the Town during one of the darkest years in World War II. Seventy years later in this dynamite production at Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse (through Aug. 27), it still challenges complacency.
Three sailors from a warship have a frantic 24-hour leave in New York City. Instead of starting with romance or adventure, the show begins with a workman (David Studwell) preparing for the day, too, as he sings “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet.” To embrace the fullness of Manhattan, On the Town wants everybody to get into the act, even people we’re not used to seeing dancing.
As much a ballet as a dance show, On the Town is the perfect item for new artistic director Brett Smock to put his imprint on the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival. Although still a young guy, Smock has been around Auburn many summers and has already established his aesthetic, as in his earth-shaking Cabaret (July 2012). Before writing On the Town, Robbins and Bernstein composed a wordless ballet, Fancy Free, numbers from which survive here. So in On the Town, dance numbers drive and expand the story and don’t merely ornament it.
We get to this quickly with “New York, New York,” the most famous song from the show. Our three swabbies have yet to meet up with lady friends, and in a real sense they have already found a first love: the city itself, filled with cops, hard hats, businessmen, secretaries–everybody on a sidewalk. We don’t usually think of “New York, New York” as a slice of patriotism, but the giddy joyousness of 1944 would have been impossible to replicate in, say, 1974.
Scenic designer Czerton Lim and lighting designer Dan Ozminkowski strenuously advance the Bernstein-Smock vision. Seven huge letters, N E W Y O R K, covered with the artwork of a 1940s postcard, dominate the back of the set. When a certain number begins they turn into screens showing the white tiles of a subway station or peaked tops of skyscrapers, moving fast enough to encourage vertigo. The letter-screens are so big they encroach on the dance space, moving action closer to the footlights.
According to the book by Bernstein pals Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the three naïve gobs have hopeless expectations of seeing everything in the city and meeting the most beautiful of women. Gabey (Xavier Cano), thinking a girl in a subway poster looks like a childhood crush, begins a mad quest to meet this month’s winner of the Miss Turnstiles, a blonde named Ivy Smith. After the boys send him off in “Gabey’s Comin’,” we cut immediately to the Miss Turnstiles contest to learn that Ivy (Shannon O’Bryan) is a Coney Island “coochy” dancer with anxieties of her own, thus needy and approachable.
The other two tars spread out to help Gabey but quickly find sweeties of their own. Chip (Drew Humphrey), looking for “subway people,” finds himself in the taxi of recently fired female cabbie Hildy Esterhazy (Alaina Mills). Hey, it’s 1944, and there’s a man shortage, both to drive hacks and for companionship. Hildy, a sailor’s dream come true, takes the first steps, planting a big wet one on the delighted Chip’s puss and then joining the duet, “Come Up to My Place.”
Geographically challenged Ozzie (Michael Warrell) goes looking for the Museum of Modern Art but somehow finds himself in the Museum of Natural History, arriving in the midst of a primate exhibit, where he meets tall, elegant scientist Claire Deloone (Jennifer Byrne). In noting Ozzie’s resemblance to prehistoric man, Claire takes his cranial measurements, which looks like a romantic pass. Already engaged to the famous Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework, Claire insists she is a woman of science but admits to getting “Carried Away,” a riotous show-stopper with a modest striptease.
Two older players take more than their share of fun in multiple roles. Powerhouse baritone David Studwell was already the workman in the opening scene and the Miss Turnstiles contest announcer, but he’s in his prime as Claire’s patsy lover Bridgework, with the lament, “I Understand,” every time she cuts him. Hyper-versatile, Studwell was also Mark Rothko in Red and Mushnik in Little Shop of Horrors earlier this summer at Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre.
Equaling him is Rebecca Carr in three roles, starting with the boozing music teacher who bellows, “Sex and art don’t mix, otherwise I would have gone right to the top.”
Header photo: Drew Humphrey, Xavier Cano and Michael Warrell in On the Town. Isaac James photo.