It was 1944, and the country was understandably focused on the ongoing war overseas. It was no wonder that a new musical that told the tale of three sailors on leave for just twenty-four hours in New York City, just before they were to ship out for the battlegrounds, was seen as an unusual, even odd, idea for an evening’s entertainment. It was the first Broadway venture by three of its creators, with the book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and music by Leonard Bernstein. Only its choreographer, Jerome Robbins, had been tested on the Great White Way before. With only ten days for an out-of-town tryout, it opened in New York to mixed reviews. It suffered a bit from its threadbare plot but the original concept and execution were transformative for its time; in fact, although the show was truly ahead of its time, it ran just over a year (almost 500 performances) in its first production, with disappointingly brief runs in two subsequent major revivals on Broadway. It was hailed as primarily a dance show, and rightly so, since it was not only based on an original ballet and concept by Robbins (“Fancy Free”) but contained more dance numbers than the more typical Broadway musicals. (Bernstein recycled some of the music for his later work for the “Conga” number in the much more successful “Wonderful Town”). Typically for Hollywood, the film version in 1949 used only five of original creators’ almost two dozen numbers, adding six others not written by them. Thus, if you’ve never seen a live performance, you’ve never really seen “On the Town”, and do you ever have a treat in store for you.
Beg, borrow, go AWOL if necessary, to get tickets to this, Lyric Stage Company’s triumphant finale to its season, for it’s the “On the Town” you should’ve seen. This production is superbly directed by Lyric’s Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos, with wonderful, amazing choreography and musical staging by Ilyse Robbins (the latter fully living up to that famous last name, though no relation), who has even choreographed the set changes. From the moment that those three sailors, Chip (Phil Tayler), Ozzie (Zachary Eisenstat) and Gabey (John Ambrosino) spring onto the stage, it’s becomes clear that this is the definitive version. It’s not long before each meets his ideal mate, respectively taxi driver Hildy (Michele A. DeLuca), anthropologist Claire de Loon (Aimee Doherty), and Ivy (Lauren Gemelli). All are individually and collectively superb. Also in the cast are Madame Dilly (Sarah deLima), Judge Pitkin (J. T. Turner) and Lucy (Ilyse Robbins) heading up a terrific ensemble including Lenni Kmiec, Rishi Basu, Kayla Bryan, Lisa Dempsey, Jeremy Towle, Daniel Forest Sullivan, Ceit M. Zweil, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Christina English, Caleb Dane Horst, Pim van Amerongen and Cameron Benda. The Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland is just right, as is the Lighting Design by Scott Clyve, the extremely clever Projection Design by Seaghan McKay, and carefully chosen Costume Design by Kathleen Doyle. The Musical Direction by Jonathan Goldberg hits all the right notes and, miraculously, the nine piece orchestra never drowns out the glorious singing, especially by Ambrosino, and perfectly accompanies the astoundingly athletic dancing by Eisenstat. Mention should also be made of the hilarious work of DeLuca and Tayler, and the screwball comedy of Doherty, whose versatility apparently knows no bounds. They manage to stand out in an impressive troupe of twenty-one, sometimes seeming like the proverbial cast of thousands.
“On the Town” never had enough time to fix some of the problems with its second act, where Comden and Green run out of steam and start repeating themselves. Still, with a great but mostly unfamiliar score including funny numbers such as “I Can Cook Too”, “Carried Away”, and “Subway Ride”, plaintive ones such as “Lonely Town”and uplifting ones such as“Lucky to Be Me”, and of course the iconic “New York, New York”, Veloudos’ endless array of hilarious touches and tweaking, and choreography that’s irresistible, this is truly a worthy humdinger of an ending to Lyric Stage’s season. It wouldn’t be much of a spoiler, given the story’s time frame of a single day, to state that the ending is one of the most poignant ever conceived. The three male leads, having had such a brief spell of exuberance and joy, face an uncertain fate. In a final quartet, we hear the lament of time’s passing and hopes for the future, in the hauntingly beautiful, heartbreakingly bittersweet ballad, “Some Other Time”. Consider the lyrics: “When you’re in love, time is precious stuff; even a lifetime isn’t enough…but let’s be glad for what we’ve had and what’s to come”. What’s to come for these three, we’ll never know; neither will the final twist be revealed here, as life evolves (and revolves) in a cycle. You won’t be able to resist being carried away.