New York, New York, a Hell of a Town
A well-deserved 24 hour shore leave in New York City spells unlimited possibilities for three sailors. Not only are these young men about to experience the Big Apple for the first time but it’s their first trip to any big city. After months risking their lives fighting for America’s freedom, these boys are ready for some R&R. Predictably during their shore leave each of the sailors finds romance with three very different and interesting young women. This high-spirited salute to the determination of our fighting men is also an ode to New York during the war years, told in broad, comic, forget-your-troubles strokes and featuring some catchy songs and a night of highly-choreographed dance numbers.
The paper-thin plot of this 1944 Jerome Robbins musical, with a score by a young Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by the new team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, was actually derived from a longer version of Bernstein’s ballet, “Fancy Free,” also choreographed by Jerome Robbins. This production is based upon the original Broadway show, not the popular 1949 film with its rather inferior musical score. While there have been a couple Broadway revivals, including one planned for this fall, it’s the first time this musical has been presented in the Chicago area. If only for that reason alone Marriott’s sparkling in-the-round production is important, especially for musical theatre aficionados, as well as patrons looking for some summer fun
Director David H. Bell, working closely with musical director Ryan T. Nelson and choreographer Alex Sanchez, had his work cut out for him. Not only did the show require three dynamically talented triple-threats who needed to be the appropriate age, it also required a trio of equally-skilled lovely actresses to play their love interests. In addition, this team also needed an ensemble of talented singer/dancers who could support these leading players. Luckily for Chicago audiences, Mr. Bell found the perfect combination of performers to bring this show to life.
Max Clayton makes his Marriott debut as Gabey, the handsome, charismatic sailor with a romantic streak, who falls in love with a girl’s photograph he sees in a subway flier. Crowned as June’s “Miss Turnstyles,” Alison Jantzie’s lovely voice, flexible choreographic talents and engaging, period-perfect acting style as Ivy Smith matches beautifully with Mr. Clayton. The two make a warm, lovable couple for whom the audience openly cheers and hopes will eventually get together. Mr. Clayton’s beautiful rendition of “Lonely Town,” nicely supported by the entire ensemble, is one of this production’s finest numbers.
Athletic hoofer and accomplished singer Jeff Smith plays Ozzie, the sailor who reminds anthropologist Claire DeLoone, the once again stunning Johanna McKenzie Miller, of the Neanderthals in her museum. Both sing up a storm and play the show’s comedy as broadly as it was written, never disappointing in their spritely-choreographed numbers. Ms. Miller beautifully leads the cast in the touching “Some Other Time,” and, with Smith, offers the manic comedy number, “Carried Away,” with a troupe of animated cavemen.
Seth Danner makes a youthful, goofy bespectacled Chip, the more cerebral of the threesome, who’s determined to take in all the sights that his Big Apple guidebook advertises before his shore leave is over. On the way he meets Hildy, a sassy, spunky lady cab driver, who finds in Chip exactly what she’s been looking for and is determined to have him. Hildy is played with Nancy Walker-like comedic style by Marya Grandy, so stunningly poignant and strong in TimeLine’s recent “Juno.” She belts out tunes like “Come Up to My Place” and the jazzy “I Can Cook Too” with precision and clarion clarity, pretty much stealing the show.
But three featured ensemble members stand out in this production. One of Chicago’s most talented and best-loved actress/comediennes, Barbara Robertson creates a hilarious scenery chewer in Madame Dilly, Ivy Smith’s melodramatic vocal instructor, for whom the bottle is her closest companion. Ms. Robertson is matched by the comic talents by the always wonderful Alex Goodrich, so sensational in CST’s recent production of “Seussical.” As Claire’s eternally understanding fiancee, Pitkin W. Bridgework, Mr. Goodrich makes a big impression in what could’ve been a throwaway cameo role in lesser hands. And lovely Brandi Wooten, so memorable in Marriott’s recent “Schoolhouse Rock Live” and “9 to 5,” plays yet another ditzy nerd as Hildy’s roommate, Lucy Schmeeler. This trio of comic actors, in addition to the marvelous singing-and-dancing ensemble, make the trip up to Lincolnshire well worthwhile.
Thomas M. Ryan has surpassed all expectations with his expansive scenic design that not only fills the stage area but continues up to the rafters and out to the back walls. Enhanced by Jesse Klug’s flashy illumination, the lights of Times Square, Broadway and Coney Island have never sparkled brighter. Always reliable for stunning couture, Nancy Missimi’s costumes are once again dazzling, especially Ivy’s breakaway ensemble during her “Presentation of Miss Turnstyles.” And, as ever, Patti Garwood’s brassy orchestral ensemble brings Bernstein’s score to life and fills the Marriott Theatre.
Audiences looking for a light, frothy summer show, broad in its comedy and uncommonly strong in its music and dance, should tour up to Lincolnshire. Not only is this a wonderful, classic musical that’s seldom seen outside a Broadway revival, but it’s a simply terrific production in its own right. David Bell has staged his production with a sharp focus and plenty of old-fashioned energy; and Alex Sanchez has delivered a respectable homage to Jerome Robbins’ distinctive choreography. The look, the sound and the feel of this wonderful show truly shouts, “New York, New York…it’s a hell of a town!”