Marriott’s 'On the Town' Is One Helluva Production
'On The Town', the musical by Leonard Bernstein, started out as the ballet on which he collaborated with then unknown choreographer Jerome Robbins, 'Fancy Free'. The story traces the 24 hour adventure of 3 sailors on leave in World war II New York City and their quest to experience everything they can, including falling in love. Bernstein teamed with comedy writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green on the largely Jewish vaudeville, Runyonesque inspired book and Jerome Robbins created the choreography.
When it originally premiered in 1944 it was a tremendous success. However it has not seen a major Chicago production since and Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire is the first to tackle this daunting show. What makes it so is that you need a cast of triple threats in the areas of acting, singing and dancing and Marriott has spared no expense in rounding up 24 of the finest triple threats in the country.
Heading up the cast are the 3 sailor archetypes Gabey, the romantic lead (played with great charm by Max Clayton), Chip, the intelligent, artistic nerdy type with black rimmed glasses (a strong Seth Danner) and Ozzie, the he-man Neanderthal (in the strongest performance by Jeff Smith). The show opens with the most well-known and memorable musical number in the show “New York, New York” as the men arrive and are swept up in the pulsing energy of the city.
While in the subway they spot a cheesecake photo of the current Miss Turnstyles, Ivy Smith (the very well-cast ingénue Alison Jantzie) the superwoman who is equally adept of all areas including sports, art and homemaking. Not to mention she has the perfect figure and is beautiful. Gabey is smitten and he and his 2 buddies split up in the quest to find her before their leave ends in 24 hours.
Hailing a cab Chip meets the crazy and broad Hildy Esterhazy (played with comic perfection and a knockout voice by Marya Grandy) who practically molests him in the cab. She joins the hunt with Chip while keeping her own prey close at hand. She gives a broad, Lucille Ball/Martha Raye performance with flawless vaudeville comedic ability.
Ozzie goes to the Museum of History in his search and meets Claire DeLoone (Johanna McKenzie Miller), who works as a paleontologist and has a “thing’ for our Neanderthal ancestor. She is instantly attracted to Ozzie’s Neanderthalistic physique and personality and as she takes his measurements, becomes increasingly aroused. She does not let the fact that she is engaged to her boss and Head of the Museum Pitkin W. Bridgework (a comic tour de force performance by Alex Goodrich) who seems oblivious at first to her attraction to Ozzie and vise-versa.
Gabey meets Ivy quite by luck at Carnegie Hall where she takes voice lessons from a voice teacher with a penchant for massive quantities of alcohol Madame Maude P. Dilly (played by the incomparable Chicago legend Barbara Robertson in one of the funniest performances I have seen her give). Madame Maude does not approve of Ivy dallying with sailors and tells her point blank that if Ivy keeps her date with Gabey she will expose the horrid truth that she is a “coochie” dancer.
The rest of the action centers on losing and finding Ivy until they reach the end of their 24 hour leave and must return to the ship.
In the most touching ballad of the score “Some Other Time, the lovers must part forever and sing of the relationships with each other they will never get to experience. Gabey, Chip and Ozzie wave goodbye and board the ship just as 3 other young sailors begin their 24 leave with “New York, New York”, providing a bittersweet curtain.
The other outstanding comic performance comes from Brandi Wooten (bearing a striking resemblance to Barbara Robertson) who plays Lucy Schmeeler, the cold-ridden schlumpish roommate of Hildy in search of love as well and who ends up with Pitkin Bridgework.
The score by Bernstein, far from his finest however, provides the glimpse of genius that would later transpire in his West Side Story and masterpiece Candide. The book by Comden and Green is thin but hugely entertaining containing some dated but hilarious lines that are straight out of vaudeville.
The main star of 'On The Town' was choreographer Jerome Robbins and, in Marriott’s production is Alex Sanchez who works magic with the cast of 22, 16 of them Equity (Marriott wisely barred no expense). Sanchez captures the spirit of Robbins (not easy to accomplish), and has formed a strong ensemble of dancers who are so limber, vibrant and exact that my muscles ached after the show ended. This is one of the finest dance ensembles I have seen in ages. Sanchez has well earned his place as one of Chicago’s finest choreographers and this show provides the canvas on which he can paint at his most vibrant.
Likewise there is great work from director David Bell who, with outstanding resident set designer Thomas M. Ryan, creates 1944 New York in all its vibrant nostalgia which quite literally surrounds you and takes you into the world of the piece. Lighting design by Master Jesse Klug is integral to establishing the mood and bright lights of Broadway with multiple flashing marquees. Nancy Missimi has provided the excellently detailed costumes and wigs, giving the cast the proper silhouettes to take us back in time.
The music direction by Ryan T. Nelson is superb and always amazes me with the size and fullness of the sound from a relatively small orchestra. It is never overpowering or self-conscious.
I commend Marriott for the outstanding production values...'On The Town' has restored my faith in them as one of the nation leader in musical theatre, reflecting the artistic quality of Broadway.
While this may not be a musical in which you leave humming the tunes it will lift your spirits and provide an escape from the harsh, ugly realities of our current war situations and threats through creating a fantasy New York of naivety, charm and imagination. This New York is truly a helluva good town and good time.