'On the Town' shows its stuff at Tanglewood

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LENOX — In the interim between Tchaikovsky and Mozart Friday night and Shostakovich and Brahms Sunday afternoon, Broadway took over the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood Saturday night with a buoyant, semi-staged production of "On the Town," a collaboration among Leonard Bernstein (composer), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics and book) and choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Inspired by Robbins' ballet, "Fancy Free," set to a score by Bernstein, this breezy 1944 musical charts the adventures of three sailors — Ozzie (an amiable Andy Karl), Chip (an equally amiable Christian Dante White) and Gabey (a thoroughly engaging Brandon Victor Dixon) — over the course of a 24-hour shore leave in New York.

"On the Town" doesn't ask a lot in terms of character or plot; neither does director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall who trimmed Comden and Green's book to its essentials. What plot there is centers around Gabey's determination to find a young woman, Ivy Smith (Georgina Pazcoguin), winner of the month's New York City subway system's Miss Turnstiles contest with whom he's become smitten after seeing her photo and write-up on a subway ad. He is aided in his quest by Ozzie and Chip, who find romantic destiny of their own — Ozzie with a man-obsessed anthropologist named Claire De Loone (a wonderfully throw-caution-to-the-winds libidinous Laura Osnes); and Chip with an exuberantly lustful cabbie named Hildy (Megan Lawrence in a brilliantly comedic performance that was a gift that kept on giving).

For his part, Dixon brought affecting vocal shadings, lyricism and color to the role of Gabey in a performance that reached across the expanse of the heavily miked Shed without sacrificing authenticity.

Rounding out the featured roles, Andrea Martin, as a voice teacher who has seen better days, took broad comedic advantage of her scenes; and Marc Kurdisch, who has a commanding, lush bass voice, was wonderfully effective as, first, the lead Workman in the opening number and then, later, as Claire De Loon's much-put upon wealthy fiance who has his turn in his masterly crafted "I Understand."

Under Marshall's smartly conceived direction and choreography, "On the Town" moved across The Shed stage with raffish impudence; awash in brash, unapologetic sexuality, especially the women — Claire, Hildy, Hildy's cold-plagued roommate, Lucy Schmeeler (Megan Sikora), and the women in the singing/dancing ensemble. This was 1944 and the war still was raging. But the New York of this "On the Town," bursts at the seams with hope and the unbridled youthful drive and promise of a hugely talented creative team, whose members were making their respective Broadway debuts.

"On the Town" doesn't begin brashly. The show opens in the pre-dawn hours with a trio of workmen and a quartet of other men in an Gershwinesque "Summertime" mood with "I Feel Like I'm Not Out of Bed Yet." It's an evocative foreshadowing of Gabey's "Lonely Town," which, with Dixon's haunting lyrical voice, catches the isolation in the midst of the urban madness that is New York. If there is a spine to "Our Town," it is not simply Gabey's drive to find Ivy; it's also about Gabey's journey to connect some dots for, and about, himself.

For all the blazing theatricality, the true revelation Saturday evening was Bernstein's music. I suppose that's a given. This is, after all, Tanglewood, a home for music; a concert venue. "On the Town," however, is not a symphonic suite. "On the Town" was conceived for the theater. And so, without scenic units and stage lighting, without a conventional proscenium stage in a darkened hall that has no distractions; with a 50-piece orchestra spread across the stage in full view of the audience rather than hidden in an open pit below the stage apron, music had its sway.

Under the baton of Keith Lockhart, who also narrated, the Pops sounded self-assured, comfortable and fully at ease with Bernstein's music. The sound was balanced and rich; evocative; by turns sly, witty, boisterous, lyrical. Lockhart retained seven musical interludes from "Fancy Free" (which Boston Ballet will be performing in The Shed Aug. 18) which, in turn, gave full reign to the influences on a then-25-year-old Bernstein. The music is, at once, lush and intimate; jazzy — big band and small. His tone throughout is, by turns, romantic, personal, expansive. The writing anticipates the restless, driving maturation that lay ahead.

The production lost some momentum after the intermission. What felt virtually effortless in the first half felt effortful through much of the second half but that is more the fault of Comden and Green, whose well of inventiveness and wit runs dry.

More of Bernstein's music for the stage lies ahead in this Bernstein Centennial Summer — "Trouble in Tahiti" Thursday at Ozawa Hall and then, later in the season, "A Quiet Place" and "Candide." And on July 28, the Boston Symphony, with David Newman on the podium, plays the "West Side Story" score live while a newly remastered print of this 1961 Academy Award-winning film, is shown on the Tanglewood screens.

On balance, "On the Town" was a strong start to this segment of Tanglewood's Bernstein summer. a playful, smart, much-needed respite from the world outside. For those who were there, how lucky to be us.


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