Monday, October 20, 2014

REVIEW: On the Town

Review of the Saturday, October 11 evening preview performance at the Lyric Theatre in New York City.  Starring Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Clyde Alves, Elizabeth Stanley, Alysha Umphress, Megan Fairchild, Jackie Hoffman, Philip Boykin and Michael Rupert.  Choreography by Joshua Bergasse. Direction by John Rando.  2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission.

Looking back on it, I think the main reason I didn't love On the Town as much as I wanted to was that my expectations were very, very high for this revival.  I've been in love with the score and a large portion of the dancing since seeing the On the Town segment of Jerome Robbins' Broadway.  It was stunning, and in the 25 years since seeing that I've often looked back on it fondly.  Anything would pale in comparison to that memory. So, knowing that, I've purposely taken a few extra days to sort out my feelings about the whole thing.  The bottom line is this: what is excellent about this revival is so excellent, it makes me feel shivers of delight even at the memory.  But what is wrong with this revival is so wrong, it makes me cringe at the memory.

There were a few things that were just a shame.  Cast-wise, what a waste of time for Tony winner Michael Rupert, who was basically a running joke.  And not a very funny one.  Sometimes he was as bland as plain pasta, others he was way over-the-top, and what should have at least been a decent pay-off, "I Understand," fell very flat.  Aside from a stellar opening ("I Feel Like I'm Not Out of Bed Yet"), Tony-nominee Phillip Boykin played several characters, none remarkably, and at worst as a cringe-worthy cliche.  Why oh why does every show host-type character have to be so fey? Boring. But the most egregious performance has to go to Jackie Hoffman, who I normally adore - worship, even. Here, she has so much going on that it just isn't funny.  Not when she's mugging her way through a cliche of an old lady, or over doing the accents of her main characterization Madame Dilly and a series of lounge singers.  Not when she chews every single piece of scenery she comes close to on the Lyric's enormous stage, and especially not when she is literally dry humping the scenery in order to make a "funny" exit. She's simply exhausting to watch and, quite frankly, after a while, she's boring.

Megan Fairchild and Jackie Hoffman
Also on the downside is the scenic and projection design by the normally amazing Beowulf Boritt.  Now I love red, white and blue as much as the next guy, but everything is made out of red, white and blue flat plastic (with the occasional blinding yellow).  It reminded me of very flat Legos, but not nearly as creative. These design elements didn't jibe with the other, far superior, design elements: Jess Goldstein's colorful costumes, Jason Lyons' bombastic lighting, and Kai Harada's pitch-perfect sound design which are all superlative.

But the most enormous problem with this production is its nearly complete lack of subtlety, which I blame entirely on director John Rando.  I realize that there is probably an inescapably natural need to play everything in this huge theater larger than life.  But there's large and there's too damn big.  The cast as a whole is pushing so hard that not much of it feels even remotely honest.  And it is pretty apparent that Rando doesn't trust the material, over doing every joke and every emotion.  Instead of a loving, appreciative rendering, he's zapped the entire thing of any sense of nostalgia it might have brought to the audience.  Most of the old-school conventions of this 70 year old classic, like the cross-stage chases that used to be done to cover scene changes, come across like they are being parodied at best, made fun of at worst.  Over-reaching and unabated intensity ends up feeling like so much white noise.  (Side note: aren't we past ridiculing plus-sized women?) The direction here is a product of today's style of entertainment - be the loudest and most crass to get the most attention.  And it is a shame.

On the upside, the show is full of wonderful performances and music that are good in spite of everything going on around them.  First, the 28 piece orchestra plays the hell out of Leonard Bernstein's vibrant score - the extended dance sequences are aurally thrilling, and visually, too.  Joshua Bergasse's character-driven choreography is a breath-taking tribute to the brilliance of the Jerome Robbins original.  His "Miss Turnstiles Ballet" is a joyous celebration of everything theatre, music and dance can be.  It is 10 minutes of sheer bliss, followed by another 5 or 6 thrilling minutes at the end of act one, the "Times Square Ballet." The ensemble is the best Broadway has seen in some time. Had Mr. Rando trusted the material as much as his choreographer did, this show would have been thoroughly satisfying.

Tony Yazbeck

(Left) Clyde Alves and Elizabeth Stanley
(Right) Jay Armstrong Johnson and Alysha Umphress

It is the central six actors, though, that almost make up for all of the show's other short-comings.  While they all do as directed - shoot to the rafters and make it stick!! - and could all potentially get out of hand as they loosen up further in the run, right now they are in top form.  Let me begin by adding my voice to the acclaim heaped upon Broadway debutante Megan Fairchild, who is destined for at least a Tony nomination.  She's a ballerina with the New York City Ballet, so I'm not surprised that she is a brilliant dancer.  But her acting is just as strong, with sharp timing and a genuineness that is thoroughly winning.  She is amazing in her ability to hold her own against Ms. Hoffman.  The other two main ladies are also terrific.  I've been a career-long fan of both Alysha Umphress and Elizabeth Stanley.  How terrific to see Ms. Umphress graduate to a featured role, and she really makes the most of it.  Already an impressive stage presence, she is a riot and one hell of a singer.  Her "I Can Cook, Too" is a highlight of the whole evening.  Ms. Stanley is equally riotous in a role unlike any other I've seen her play, including a surprisingly wide ranging, operatic voice and a gift for physical comedy.

The three sailors on 24-hour leave at the heart of this story are played to perfection by three of Broadway's best.  All three are going places - see them now! I've been following Jay Armstrong Johnson's career since he was an understudy in the tour of A Chorus Line, and he is an utter joy here as guidebook-loving tourist sailor Chip.  His broad smile, his "aw, shucks" delivery, and obliviousness to his sexiness makes both character and actor compelling to watch.  Clyde Alves scores as fun-loving (and just as handsome/sexy) sailor Ozzie, and what a dancer!  Finally, Tony Yazbeck has found the role of a lifetime in Gabey, the lonely, lovelorn sailor on a quest for the girl of his dreams.  A natural song and dance man, he commands the stage.  All three are triple-threats to the third power.

Clearly, all around me the audience was crazy for this production.  They laughed extra loud, clapped extra loud and screamed out in delight at even the smallest things.  I'm glad that they loved it so much.  Broadway needs that kind of enthusiasm.  I wish I felt it that intensely.

25 pts
Book (10)
Score: Music (5)
Score: Lyrics (5)
Orchestrations (5)
25 pts
Staging (15)
Choreography (10)
20 pts
Leading Roles (7)
Supporting Roles (7)
Ensemble (6)
20 pts
Scenery (5)
Costumes (5)
Lighting (5)
Sound (5)
10 pts
Unity of Concept (5)
Entertainment Value (5)
100-98 A+
97-93 A
92-90 A-
89-88 B+
87-83 B
82-80 B-
79-78 C+
77-73 C
72-70 C-
69-68 D+
67-63 D
62-60 D-
59-00 F

(Photos by Joan Marcus)


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