'On the Town' explores New York at Barrington Stage
PITTSFIELD -- "New York, New York, a helluva town, the Bronx is up but the Battery's down ..."
That's the signature tune from the landmark 1944 musical "On the Town" by the dream team of composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins (based on their "Fancy Free" ballet collaboration), with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
The show -- very much anchored to its time -- has a distinguished pedigree, but full-fledged productions are not commonplace these days.
Barrington Stage has opened a major revival on its Mainstage.
During a group interview, director John Rando, choreographer Joshua Bergasse (both Barrington Stage Associate Artists) and two cast members, also returning to the theater company, extolled "On the Town" for its vibrancy and its continuing relevance.
The musical depicts the adventures of three World War II sailors roaming the city during a fast-paced 24-hour shore leave to see the sights and score some romance. Gabey sets his cap for Ivy Smith, the ingenue dubbed Miss Turnstiles on promotional subway posters. His two pals, Chip and Ozzie, also find companionship while falling in love with New York.
In 2008, Rando directed a semi-staged, critically praised five-night revival, part of the Encore! series of concert performances at Manhattan's City Center.
"That helped me vastly and made me very familiar with the score, the challenges of the show, and the responsibility of how to tell the story," he said. "When I think of the test of a really great musical, it can play on a large scale and also on a very intimate scale. This production will be closer to the audience."
Rando described Comden and Green as "pioneers, true inventors of the contemporary musical. Much of what they did allowed a lot of what writers do now."
"This play is a remarkable achievement for the writers, and Bernstein's music is spectacular," he declared. "The heart and soul of the show is inside every note, every change of tempo, meter and key. Just celebrating that music is a real key to putting on a production."
Rather than using what survives of the original Jerome Robbins choreography, Bergasse has created his own dances and ballets.
"We're definitely staying within the style," said Bergasse, who was the Emmy-winning choreographer for NBC's "Smash" as well as for Barrington Stage's "West Side Story," "Guys and Dolls," and "Carousel."
In Bergasse's view, "what's so great about this show is that the dance is an integral part of the storytelling. The choreography is equally important as the script and the music."
He said Bernstein's intricate, symphonic music is especially challenging for him as well as the ensemble of 16 dancers.
"The story is so great because it's very intimate -- these three guys, who are like brothers, and their three loves, the women who come into their lives," Rando explained, adding that the goal is "to stay in that world, to make sure the story is really rich, so anything we can add to it is to underscore and enhance the romance that happens."
Portraying the brassy, comedic and sexually aggressive cab driver Hildy, Alycia Umphress -- who had not seen the show nor the film -- said, "I was familiar with ‘I Can Cook Too' and ‘Come Up to My Place,' so I decided to just look at it fresh and do what I will with it."
"We're constantly surprised by how much this show is about sex," she said. "But I love it, it's naughty and it's a blast. Right now, I'm trying to negotiate belting very high, dancing, being funny and finding the focus."
As Chip, the "green, naive" sailor and object of Hildy's affection, Jay Armstrong Johnson said he has been immersed in his dancing moves.
"As a Southern guy who always dreamt of going to New York, I could relate to Chip, absolutely," he said, adding that he prepared by visiting New York with his co-stars for 24 hours, soaking up the settings.
"It's a totally coming-of-age story for Chip; he's coming into his sexualness," said Johnson.
Rando stressed that he wanted a "very clean, smart, distilled production that could really tell the story with a lot of humor, fun and heart."
"There's such a playfulness, sport and loopy comedy in the show. It really is a slice of the New York-America of the time," he said. "New York was really the hub of American civilization in the ‘40s.
"This story will remain timeless for one reason only: Soldiers going off to war, saying good-bye to loved ones. I believe firmly in telling the story of how short a soldier's life can be and how important it is that they seize the moment and enjoy life to the fullest extent. That's a great storyŠ It's very patriotic and very full of American chutzpah."
If you go ...
What: ‘On the Town,' the 1944 musical by Leonard Bernstein, original choreography by Jerome Robbins based on their 1943-44 ‘Fancy Free' ballet, with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Where: Barrington Stage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield (Boyd-Quinson Mainstage)
When: Performances through July 13 (press opening Sunday at 5 p.m.)
Production Team: Director John Rando, choreographer Joshua Bergasse, music direction by Darren R. Cohen.
The show: In 1944, three sailors on a brief shore leave in New York City find romance and adventures, all in 24 hours. The show was the first Broadway score by Bernstein, Comden and Green. Musical highlights: ‘New York, New York,' ‘I Can Cook Too,' ‘Lonely Town' and ‘Some Other Time.'
Schedule: Tuesday and Wednesday, 7 p.m; Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Wednesday and Friday matinees at 2 (Friday and Wednesday, June 14 and 19). Sundays at 5 p.m. (On Thursday, July 4: 2 p.m. matinee only).
Tickets: $20-$65. Preview prices through Friday: $15, $20. Seniors: $39, $34 all matinees. Tickets for youth ages 6-18: $15 all performances.
Production running time:160 minutes (approx.)
Information: barringtonstageco.org or (413) 236-8888.
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