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A Fun Night 'On the Town'

FOUR STARS! Initial Local Docking of Classic Musical Should "Shore Leave" You Smiling.

I likely have more sentimentality for 'On the Town' than for any other musical that--prior to Wednesday night--I had never seen onstage.

That's because, being a favorite of my father's, the classic MGM movie version of 'On the Town'--starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller and others--was probably aired in my childhood home more than any musical besides 'Singin' in the Rain' (and perhaps 'Guys & Dolls').

But since I began attending live musicals with regularity in 2000, I have never seen 'On the Town', nor even noted it being staged anywhere prior to its current run at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. (A new Broadway revival is set to begin in October.)

In fact, I can't say I ever knew that 'On the Town' began its existence as a 1944 stage musical, rather than an MGM film from 1949, as was the case with 'Singin' in the Rain' (in 1952).

Perhaps this is because--as astonishing as it was to learn from the program when I arrived at the Marriott Theatre--no professional production of 'On the Town' has ever been staged in Chicago or the vicinity.

Supposedly there was a national tour soon after the Broadway run 70 years ago, but it didn't play Chicago, and there are no records of any other professional staging in the area.

In reading about the show, and movie, on Wikipedia before arriving at the Marriott Lincolnshire on Wednesday night, I learned that while two of the songs I fondly recalled from the movie--"New York, New York" (the "it's a helluva town" one, not "Start spreading the news..," though both have Sinatra in common) and "Come Up to My Place"--came from the stage musical, for the most part MGM had new songs written for the film.

Supposedly, many of the tunes composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green--future Broadway legends creating their first musical, as with choreographer Jerome Robbins--were considered too operatic in nature for Hollywood and movie screens across America.

So an intriguing panoply of factors were at play when I took my seat Wednesday night: a classic title that I--and likely many in the senior-heavy audience--regarded fondly, yet a work never before seen locally in live form, featuring a score far less familiar than initially imagined.

And while I have seen numerous musicals at Marriott and other relatively congruent regional theaters over the years, making for casts often filled with familiar faces, that was not the case here.

To meet the dance-heavy needs of the show, director David H. Bell and choreographer Alex Sanchez conducted extensive auditions in Chicago and New York, resulting in three lead actors I had never before seen. (A couple other cast members were familiar.)

Expanded from an idea that began as a ballet by Robbins with music by Bernstein, 'On the Town' centers around three World War II U.S. Navy sailors on shore leave who explore New York City for the first time, for just one day.As Gabey, Chip and Ozzie, respectively, Max Clayton, Seth Danner and Jeff Smith are all engaging, well-sung and fine dancers... From the first notes of the overture, Bernstein's score is delightful, including fine renditions of the songs I knew well--Danner and Marya Grandy (as Hildy) are great fun on "Come Up to My Place"--as well as those I was likely hearing for the first-time, such as "Carried Away," "Lonely Town," "Lucky to Be Me" and "Ya Got Me."

In doing an excellent job as Hildy, a romantically aggressive cabbie who becomes Chip's love interest--played in the movie by Betty Garrett--Grandy also delivers a pleasing rendition of "I Can Cook," a well-known song from the musical that didn't make the movie.

Alison Jantzie is endearing as Ivy, who in being featured as the NYC subway system's "Miss Turnstiles" drives the narrative, as Gabey--with help from his friends--pursues her, initially trying to locate her within a city of millions based on seeing a poster.

Also quite good are two actresses I have seen in past shows, Johanna McKenzie as the punnily named Claire DeLoone, the love interest of Ozzie despite being engaged to a dweeb named Pitkin (Alex Goodrich), and the always fabulous Barbara Robertson, who gives the show's most memorable performance as Madame Maude P. Dilly, a vocal coach working with Ivy.

I was pleasantly surprised at how LOL funny the 70-year-old dialogue is at several points, even beyond the comic relief characters of Pitkin, Madame Dilly and Hildy's roommate Lucy Schmeeler (Brandi Wooten), who has a sinus condition akin to Niagara Falls. 

Not surprisingly, given the consistently high standards of quality at Marriott Theatre--said to boast the largest subscriber base of any U.S. theater--everything about the inaugural production of 'On the Town' was impressive.

Beyond the score, songs, some wonderfully witty lyrics and humorous dialogue, Sanchez' choreography, Nancy Missimi's costumes, Thomas Ryan's scenic design and a large ensemble cast under Bell's direction are all demonstrably good. Particularly notable for when the show was written, multiple ballet and/or group dance numbers and substantive use of brass in Bernstein's score are quite pleasing, and Bell's staging of a scene in the Museum of Natural History is tremendously inventive.

...anyone who embarks on Chicagoland's maiden voyage of a legendary but exceedingly rare musical, whose creators would go on to create shows such as 'West Side Story' and 'Wonderful Town', is almost "shore" to leave more than abundantly entertained--and even enriched--from their night 'On the Town'.


It's a helluva time.