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On the Town

Chicago has enjoyed excellent new summertime productions of Brigadoon ( Goodman Theatre ) and A Fiddler on the Roof ( Light Opera Works ), but another classic Broadway musical, On the Town, blows them out of the water.

It bursts with jazzy musical insouciance, a delightful and athletic cast and the unstoppable high spirits of the talents who created it in 1944. True, the familiar boy-meets-girl story is much thinner than Brigadoon or Fiddler...but Leonard Bernstein's musical challenges, the large cast and need for six singing/dancing leads make On the Town a rarely produced show. (This is the first production in my 45 years on the Chicago scene as actor, dramaturge and critic.) Meanwhile, a recent production in another city is Broadway-bound—I wish it were this one.

On the Town is based on Jerome Robbins' ballet Fancy Free, with music by Bernstein, created in 1944 and within months expanded into a greatly altered full Broadway musical comedy rich with Robbins' then-new vocabulary of jazz dance and an enlarged Bernstein score to accommodate songs, among them the iconic opening/closing number, "New York, New York, a helluva' town." On the Town was the first Broadway triumph for its four collaborators, none more than 30 years old. Their youthful exuberance literally bubbles into the audience. It's impossible not to enjoy this silly, improbable, endearing yet dashing show about three American sailors during World War II with a 24-hour leave in New York City.

Director David H. Bell, choreographer Alex Sanchez and musical director Ryan T. Nelson (all three veteran Marriott artists) are at the top of their game with On the Town. The pace is fast, the dance dazzling, and the 11-piece orchestra rock-solid. David Siegel's brilliant reductions of the original orchestrations are hot with brasses and sweet with woodwinds. With its constantly-changing New York locales, On the Town is uniquely suited to the flexibility of an in-the-round theater, greatly assisted by Thomas M. Ryan's colorful scenic design (and Jesse Klug's lighting) which effectively employs a full-stage turntable.

But it's the young and handsome cast (and a few older veterans) that really sells the show with indefatigable energy, smiles to spare and convincing delivery of even the most cornball lines. The only question about sailors Seth Danner, Jeff Smith and Max Clayton is which one is cutest in his sailor suit! Among their femmes fatales, Marya Grandy sings and clowns to scene-stealing perfection, Johannie McKenzie Miller supplies high society glamor and Alison Jantzie offers sincerity you can love. All six are deft-to-sensational dancers and singers with strong comedy chops, but just when you think it's all laughs they pull off a tender number such as "Lonely Town" and "Some Other Time" to give the show heart. Please, don't miss this long-missing treasure.