OLNEY – The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland in College Park has been commemorating this milestone with a series of productions such as a June concert featuring selections from his musical dramas, including “West Side Story,” “Candide,” and “On the Town.”
As the latter is rarely performed in its entirety, I was delighted to have the opportunity to see the complete show, now playing at the Olney Theater Center. The wait was worth it, and - to adopt one of the 1940s-style idioms which permeate this production - I encourage all to see this “swell show.”
Written and set in the World War II era, the story follows three Navy sailors on leave in New York City for 24 hours. They use their free time to search for adventure and romance, and find both in several ways: through a quest to meet a subway pin-up girl (“Miss Turnstiles”), by a chance encounter with a forward female taxi driver (not considered a woman’s job in those days, but male cabbies are off fighting Hitler in Europe and Tojo in the Pacific), and via a young woman scholar supposedly more interested in early anthropological specimens than modern men.
This musical embodies many aspects of a key decade in American culture, for it was a time during which women were at least temporarily welcomed into the American workforce on near-equal footing with men. The era also signaled a shift in America towards a more egalitarian and socially mobile society; war-time military service broke down many earlier barriers based on religion and social class, and at least indirectly set the stage for the later Civil Rights movement.
Any production of this show must anticipate comparison to the famous, frantically paced 1949 film version with charismatic leads Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in significant roles. The book Musicals: The Definitive Illustrated Story sums up this situation: “The movie steals the show.” The Olney production wisely acknowledges this by including a version of the famed Gene Kelly dance sequence, performed with tremendous skill and finesse by Rhett Guter (Gabey) and Claire Rathbun (Miss Turnstiles).
Yet the musical stage version, and especially this incantation of it, achieves something that the movie cannot: It places the viewer with utter verisimilitude in the nightclub scene of 1940’s New York, in the swinging Diamond Eddie Club and the Latino Congacabana. The “fourth wall” is broken, and theater-goers are transformed into the nightclub audience. In the words of the radio series of the time, “you are there.”
One other aspect this stage version has to offer: The 1949 movie musical scuttled most of Leonard Bernstein’s original score and softened the remaining parts. The original lyrics of the opening song, for example, were “New York, New York, One hell-of-a town;” Hayes-Code era Hollywood transformed this into “New York, New York, a wonderful town.” The Olney show restores the original music, including the pleasingly discordant strains of Leonard Bernstein. It also features the street-smart choreography of Jerome Robbins, anticipating the fire of the later Bernstein-Robbins collaboration on the brilliant and edgy “West Side Story.” Persons who have only seen the sanitized movie version of the show may have wondered (as this reviewer did) how Bernstein and Robbins could have produced both works. The Olney production shows Bernstein and Robbins’ original vision and just enough of their edgier side to help musical theater fans experience “On the Town” and by extension “West Side Story” in a new way.
This production’s singers perform the robust Bernstein score well, with the female leads showing exceptional energy. “I Can Cook, Too” (deleted from the movie) and “Come Up To My Place” (retained in the film) are special comic delights, belted out with verve and aplomb by Tracy Lynn Olivera as Hildy Esterhazy.
Of course, any successful version of “On the Town” must provide the atmospherics of 1940’s New York through sets and costumes. The clothing choices in this production do this well, faithfully reproducing an earlier, more elegant age of fashion. The sets consist of stylized advertising signs of long-gone New York diners and cafes. A scene with a dinosaur skeleton crumbling at the Museum of Natural History is also particularly memorable from the movie version; I would not have believed that it could be done on stage, but it was! My only concern about the staging was the omnipresent New York City skyline in the stage background, which looked somewhat like rugged rocks and mountains. References to the concrete jungle, perhaps? Yet nothing in the play suggests such a notion; as the Olney Playbill states correctly, “On the Town” is a Valentine love letter to New York. On the positive side, however, the said skyline beautifully frames the live orchestra, who - ever visible - set the pace for the vibrant tunes and rhythms, including some of the dissonant tones of the Bernstein score. Overall, I recommend the show highly.
“On the Town” plays at the Olney Theatre Centre in performances which have been extended through July 29.