In 1944 Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s “On the Town” debuted on Broadway. It was inspired by The Jerome Robbins Ballet hit “Fancy Free” in 1944, with music by Leonard Bernstein (Bernstein scored the Broadway show, too). Some 70 years later, “On the Town” still manages to entertain in its culmination of large song-and-dance numbers, despite a somewhat lackluster plot.
The show follows three sailors who land in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard to experience the Big Apple for the first time before shipping off to World War II. Upon their first subway ride, they discover a blonde beauty on a car’s billboard ad. Ms. Turnstiles—a.k.a. Ivy Smith—is the New York transit system’s lady of the month, so to speak, a woman who is well-rounded in arts, sports and society, single, and rides the subway on the reg. One of the sailors, Gabey, finds love at first sight in the ad, and sets out with his pals, Ozzie and Chip, in a search for Ivy. He wants his sudden lady love to make his only 24 hours in the city a memorable one. Along the way, they run into a hodgepodge of characters that turns their 24-hour manhunt into a raucous good time.
Opera House Theatre Company is producing “On the Town” for the first time in their 29th year of bringing live theatre to Wilmington. Director Judy Greenhut—who oversaw the 50th year European tour of the show in the ‘90s—is a master at choreography. It shows in this local rendition, too. Ballet dancers make up a great deal of the ensemble and add an interesting turn of interpretations to the musical. They produce quieter, softer moments. Other jovial dances do nothing but impress, including the “New York, New York” number from scene one, which lets audiences know they’re in for something a little more than a few kick-ball-chains at the onset of the show.
Much like the dancing, the mastermind leading the hailed Bernstein score makes ”On the Town” all the more enjoyable. In this case, Lorene Walsh and her orchestra manage to pivot the overall feel without a hitch, from delicate heart-rending scores (“Lonely Town”) to kaleidoscopic, experimental forays, as heard in the dream scene in Act II. A few of the scenes depend completely on music and dance to carry them, without dialogue. I adore these moments because they allow the audience to hear the nuances of the horns, brass, perscussion, and keys while taking in a performer’s physicality to new heights.
Of course, if it weren’t for the actors ensuring the plot’s forward movement, there would be no show. While our protagonist Gabey carries the main thread of the loose story, the real enjoyment comes from his friends and new acquaintances, all of whom make the comedy engaging. Of the cast, Adam Poole as Ozzie and Kendra Goehring-Garrett as Claire rise above and beyond expectations. Point blank: They have lustful chemistry perfectly needed to pull off their roles. Goehring-Garrett’s sexpot anthropologist is a hoot from beginning to end—and her operatic vocals nearly shatter Thalian’s chandelier, Alice, with every perfect pitch. Poole’s folksy charm and bumbling at-ease suave showcase a superb balance of nuance-filled acting. This character could be over-the-top, but he’s not.
Their scene in the Museum of Natural History (“Carried Away”) not only rings most memorable and timelessly humorous (remember, this show was written in the ‘40s, so today’s punchlines can be much more raunchy), but the set-design of the scene impresses. Terry Collins of Scenic Asylum brings to life New York magically in “On the Town.” Bravo to one of the best set-designs—dressings and props included—I’ve seen this year. More so, the lighting, done by Dallas LaFon, gets its due, too, especially in the cab-driver scene from Act I, “Come Up to My Place.”
Grounded by Heather Setzler as Hildy and James Ellison as Chip, the two wax and wane in connectivity during the scene (which happens to be the favorite of an 11-year-old whom I took as my date). The overzealous, newly fired cab driver tries to make the moves on a very green sailor who, well, let’s just say, really hasn’t had much luck in the girl department. Setzler wins for most laughs in this show; she’s snarky without being irritable. Ellison matches her charisma. He’s downright lovable as a bit of a nerd, yet refrains from being a snoozefest.
Jason Aycock as Gabey embellishes an “aw shucks” allurement perfect for a guy from the cornfields of Iowa. Aycock’s lifelong practice as a dancer (i.e. clogger) takes center stage in the show, too; his pacing and timing never miss a beat (something most needed to fulfill Gene Kelly’s debut role in the 1949 film version). Yet, Aycock’s character often gets overshadowed by the onstage action of the big-talkers in the show. The only other downfall comes in his rapport with Brooklynne Williamson who plays Ivy. There’s no zing between them, which is most needed since it’s the driving plot point. However, Aycock, Poole, and Ellison share a believable young brood excitement as brothers at sea sharing life’s firsts.
Secondary humor runs aplenty in “On the Town” thanks to thespians like Michelle Reiff as a drunkenly Madame Dilly (think Carol Burnnett in “Annie”) and Rachael Moser as a sneezy, coughy Lucy (her cold gives her the best cartoon voice on the face of the planet). Christopher Rickert as Judge Pitkin showcases uptight dressed as easy-going to a tee, while Robin Dale Robertson as one of many nightclub MCs really amps up the frenzy in a few scenes.
All in all, Opera House gets two thumbs up for providing a night of engaging entertainment. Seeing it live certainly beats sitting at home watching its Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra rendition on Netflix. To iterate artistic director Lou Criscuolo’s note at the beginning of the “On the Town” program: It takes audience participation to get the full effect of everything live theatre has to offer. So, the real questions is: What are you waiting for?
On the Town
July 11th-13, 18th-20th
Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $29 • www.thalianhall.com