It’s a Helluva Town as Marriott Gets Everything Right
With Broadway set to revive “On the Town” in October to mark the show’s 70th anniversary, Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire stole some of the Great White Way’s thunder with its charming, confident production of this winning musical — a show that deserves to be seen much more widely than has been the case in the past.
Indeed, “On the Town” has never been staged in the Chicago area. That’s hard to believe, given the blockbuster talents behind it: music by Leonard Bernstein; book and lyrics by Tony-winning writing partners Betty Comden and Adolph Green; all of it based on an idea by the incomparable Jerome Robbins — an idea first brought to life as a ballet, “Fancy Free,” choreographed by Robbins with music by Bernstein.
With its balletic roots, dancing is one of the great delights of “On the Town” — and one of the biggest challenges of producing it. Alex Sanchez’s choreography at the Marriott rises to the occasion with dazzling dance sequences throughout. Director David H. Bell astutely figured out a way to pare the show’s original Broadway ensemble of more than 40 down to 22 performers by casting dancers who could sing. If Bell doesn't get sued for overworking his performers — unlikely, since the cast members appear to be having the times of their lives — he’s pulled off quite a coup.
It’s hard to say whether the chorus must be more exhausted by the dizzying number of costume changes or their energetic dancing, but the action never stops — except when Jordan Fife Hunt, Raymond Interior, Andrew Purcell, Sam Rogers and Ian Saunders freeze as a tableau of cavemen at the Museum of Natural History, just before hurling themselves into a zany conga line. Rounding out the ensemble are Ryan Bernsten, Ellen Green, Monique Haley, Tiffany Krause, Kristin Larson-Hauk, Jeff Max, Desiree Staples, Elizabeth Telford and Melissa Zaremba.
As superb as the ensemble is, much of the show’s success stems from the engaging performances of its stars: the trio of sailors on leave in the world’s most exciting city and the troika of women they couple with during their precious 24 hours ashore. Peoria-bred Gabey (Max Clayton) falls in love with a photo of the subway’s Miss Turnstiles for June, Ivy Smith (Alison Jantzie). Before the two actually meet, they connect in a wordless dance sequence that flavors what is to come. Bookish Chip (Seth Danner) is wrenched from his tourism guide by the nonstop affections of taxi driver Hildy Esterhazy (Marya Grandy). Easygoing Ozzie (Jeff Smith) pairs up with scholar/party girl Claire DeLoone (Johanna McKenzie Miller). All six are top drawer, with some especially strong in one part of their triple-threat talents — i.e., Smith’s dancing, Jantzie’s singing and McKenzie Miller’s acting. Grandy is a standout in all three abilities, no more so than when she takes Chip for a ride, literally and figuratively, in her ‘toonish taxi (clever prop design by Sally Weiss).
Because most Chicagoans have never seen “On the Town” on the stage, they may have drawn some mistaken conclusions from the 1949 film starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. The film version replaced most of Bernstein’s original score with songs by studio songwriters, leaving only “New York, New York” and one other Bernstein song. The stage version is a musical revelation, a rediscovery of the young Bernstein’s best work, including the haunting “Lucky to Be Me” and, at the end, “Some Other Time,” whose poignancy stuffs all the frivolity of the past 24 hours back into the bottle.
Every performer contributes some sparkle, especially Barbara Robertson as voice teacher Madame Maude P. Dilly; Elizabeth Telford in cutting parodies of torch singers; Alex Goodrich as the understanding Pitkin W. Bridgework; and Brandi Wooten, stealing scenes with a stuffy nose and a wad of tissue. The lusciousness of Nancy Missimi’s costumes punctuates the clean design of Thomas M. Ryan’s poised set, which uses the Marriott’s stage turntable better than any preceding production, spinning this tuneful show on its merry way.