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Go 'On the Town', To The Greatest Show You've Never Seen

When the Marriott Theatre in far north suburban Lincolnshire announced it was mounting a production of the 1944 landmark musical comedy "On The Town," most cognoscenti were excited. I mean, this is a show that everyone who takes musical theater seriously has studied, but that few have actually seen. The Marriott reports being told by the licensing agency that it has no record of any previously licensed productions by local companies anywhere in the Chicago area! So unless you caught the short-lived 1998 Broadway revival (with Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Lea Delaria) or the equally short-lived 1971 revival (with Bernadette Peters, Donna McKechnie and Phyllis Newman), well, odds are that you haven't really seen a fully-staged production of "On The Town" at all. (Even the ballet "Fancy Free," upon which it is based, is actually quite different.)

All of this is such a shame. But how could this be? Well, the 1949 MGM film didn't do the property any favors, keeping the characters and some semblance of the plot, but jettisoning almost all of what was the initial Broadway effort by composer Leonard Bernstein ("West Side Story"), lyricist-bookwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green("Singin' In The Rain") and choreographer Jerome Robbins ("Fiddler On The Roof"), major talents then under the direction of the legendary Mr. George Abbott ("The Boys From Syracuse"). Aside from an early sixties studio cast album, and some tracks included in the recording of the1989 Tony-winning musical "Jerome Robbins' Broadway," great songs like "Come Up To My Place," "Carried Away," "Lonely Town," "Carnegie Hall Pavane (Do Do Re Do)" and "Lucky To Be Me" are largely unknown. "I Can Cook Too," "Some Other Time" and "New York, New York" are better known, but entirely out of context. And how many ballet sequences are there? Seven? "Laurey Makes Up Her Mind," eat your heart out!

A full-fledged Broadway revival is in preparation now, to begin performances in 42nd Street's Lyric Theatre on September 20th and open on October 16th. But the Marriott has beaten that production to the punch, complete with a new 13-piece orchestration by David Siegel. And now we can see how the songs fit with the characters, how extended ballet sequences can possibly fit into a comic romp of three sailors on 24-hour shore leave, and figure out which character is which. And we can see just how hard this angular, jazzy and learned score (fit for the concert hall, as Bernstein later proved) is for instrumentalists to play, how hard it is to cast three singing, acting, male ballet dancers (at last two of whom are funny), and how hard it is to find an ingénue ballerina, a quirky soubrette with high notes, and a young character actress who can belt it out of the park. The talents of folks like Nancy Walker, Cris Alexander,John Reardon, Sono Osato and, yes, Comden and Green themselves were rare, indeed.

And so it is that the Marriott, here under the direction of David H. Bell, went to the New York talent pool for four of these six leads, including all three men. Our three heroes are led here by Max Clayton as Gabey, the singing, lovestruck and decorated sailor who wants to find Miss Turnstiles, surely New York's number one young lady. Seth Danneris Chip, the nerdy boy from Peoria who is catnip to Hildy, the lady cab driver with the steamroller personality. And hunky Jeff Smith takes on Ozzie, the role written for the decidedly un-hunky Adolph Green, and makes him very much into the "primitive man" that anthropologist Claire DeLoone has such a hard time resisting.

While the Navy uniforms they wear and the hats they never seem to lose don't do them many favors in the charisma department, all three men shine anyway. They are likable, instantly unique and full of familiarity with each other's quirks and foibles. Clayton's singing voice is lighter than it could be, but lovely nonetheless. All three dance as if to the barre born, and balance the gravitas of a world at war with the chance to do anything, anything at all, as long as it's done by 6:00 am tomorrow. And did I mention hilarious? Yes, they are. The war they're escaping isn't even mentioned, but, really, does it need to be? Death is close for any serviceman, and the last thing they're going to do on shore leave is talk about it.

New York's Alison Jantzie is lovely in the dance role of Ivy Smith (the elusive subway publicity stunt known as Miss Turnstiles), and Marya Grandy and Johanna McKenzie Miller are the impressive Chicagoans appearing in the Walker and Comden roles of Hildy and Claire. Two of the three supporting leads are local as well (Jeff Award winners Barbara Robertson and Alex Goodrich in wickedly drawn comic portrayals), joined by Brandi Wooten's equally skewering Lucy Shmeeler.

Grandy's Hildy is the most vocally adept performance of the evening, making mincemeat out of "I Can Cook Too" and working musical and comedic genius with Danner as the two circle the Marriott's square stage in a taxicab during the absurdist gem that is "Come Up To My Place." Miller's Claire shows more colors in this busy actress's voice than I have heard before, while making the satirical business of a dance number with the mannequins of a natural history exhibit actually make sense, and stringing along her unusual fiancé, Pitkin W. Bridgework (Goodrich) to a comic breaking point. Jantzie's Ivy, who isn't all that Miss Turnstiles claimed to be, dances divinely and is utterly understandable as a struggling performer with a crazy voice teacher (Robertson at her zany best) and a demeaning job (Is Coney Island really open all night long?).

Bell has surrounded these nine performers (and a tenth, the all-purpose announcer-manJeff Max) with the hardest working ballet dancers in Lincolnshire, most of whom have worked in Chicago and around the country. They are Ryan Bernsten, Jordan Fife Hunt,Ellen Green, Monique Haley, Raymond Interior, Tiffany Krause, Kristina Larson-Hauk, Andrew Purcell, Sam Rogers, Ian Saunders, Desiree Staples, Elizabeth Telfordand Melissa Zaremba. Choreographer Alex Sanchez (winner of the BroadwayWorld Chicago Award for "Follies" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater) has done remarkable work here, shaping the cityscapes and scenes of hustle and bustle, jitterbug exuberance and athletic leaps with precision, clarity and (to be honest) fairness, as the 360-degree stage is not always deferential to a choreographer's demands. Those who have any interest at all in the ways musical theater can use dance to further the story would be well served to buy multiple tickets right now, to see these artists in top form.

Bell and his design team have evoked a wartime Manhattan well, even with the constraints that leaving room for dance must naturally impose. (Two lampposts are the only permanent set pieces.) Thomas M. Ryan has surrounded the entire theater with skyscraper images which, when lit from behind by Jesse Klug, provide a cool sense of being in Central Park, or on one of those Greenwich Village low-rise blocks. Theater marquees and bridge lights further bring Manhattan to the Marriott, and the stage revolve is used well, and extensively.

Ryan and properties designer Sally Weiss provide many tables and chairs and whatnots for the cast to bring on and dance on, though the World War II setting is most clearly evoked by Sanchez's more social dance sequences, and by Nancy Missimi's costumes for civilians and ladies. Robert E. Gilmartin's sound design was, from my corner seat, flawless, and Ryan T. Nelson's music direction, with supervision by Patti Garwood, is impressive in its quality, and nearly so in style I'm sure all will be well in a few more shots at this eclectic and, for its time, avant-garde amalgam of comic songs, ballads and dance sequences. This music is hard, folks, but hard in the service of musical comedy and American theatrical ballet.

The Marriott dishes up a rich slice of escapist Americana. Light-hearted, to be sure, but I still had a tear in my eye toward the end there. And really, has any stage property with such an impressive pedigree and such excellent re-interpretation provided so many laughs, so much high-quality instrumental music, so much amazing dance, and such a simple yet effective story? Are any other quirky characters more clearly delineated? And is there any more satisfactory ending to a story that, really, has no end? Every day, somewhere in the world, American sailors go on shore leave. May their day (and night) in the sun always be so upbeat, so bright, so right.