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'On the Town' Soars at the Marriott Theatre


Musical theatre fans have a rare and wonderful opportunity this summer to enjoy a classic from the Golden Age of the American Musical Theatre that has not seen the light of a Chicago stage in nearly 70 years. In a season typically crowded with familiar titles and re-runs, the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire is turning its spotlights on Leonard Bernstein, Adolph Green and Betty Comden’s World War II valentine to the Big Apple “On the Town”. It is the first locally produced staging of the 1944 musical following its first visit by the national touring company at the long forgotten Shubert Great Northern Theatre a year and a half after making its successful Broadway debut. Only two principals remained from the original cast: the great singer/comedienne Nancy Walker and the ever versatile librettist/lyricist Adolph Green pulling triple threat duty as one of the three sailors on leave in New York City.

“On the Town” has had two unsuccessful Broadway revivals (1971 and 1998) and is planning a third at the time of this review. Still most people remember it from the delightful MGM movie treatment that made a bold and then revolutionary move of shooting its stars Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra on location rather than on a studio lot painted to look like Manhattan. The movie producer Arthur Freed also made a negligible choice to chuck all but two of Leonard Bernstein’s jubilant and jazz hot songs and substitute lesser replacements by studio contract composer Roger Edens. What we are now hearing at the Marriott is a nearly complete re-introduction to Bernstein’s swinging score, played with tremendous joy and vitality by Conductor Tom Vendafreddo and orchestra...a work heavily rooted in dance and inspired by the ballet “Fancy Free,” which was created earlier in the same year by the same legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Bernstein and Robbins would, of course, go on to collaborate on “West Side Story,” which is considered one of the true groundbreakers of the musical art form. “On the Town” is a milder and gentler piece that is nonetheless lusty, lighthearted and thoroughly engaging summer fare. It is bolstered at the Marriott Theatre by a terrific and talented company of young triple threat performers. How delightful to find so many beautiful new faces and bodies on that venerable Lincolnshire stage. Director David H. Bell and Choreographer Alex Sanchez keep them in a state of seemingly perpetual motion that is nearly as exhausting as it is exhilarating. Even the crossovers and scene shifts are choreographed at a breakneck pace that compliments the hustle and bustle of the big city and reinforces the central theme that time is a fleeting and precious gift.

The world of 1944 now seems so far removed from our own it might as well be taking place in a different galaxy. Was the innocence and naiveté of America during the Second World War ever as charming or engaging as in this carefree evocation? Romantic conquests are the chief order for our three boys in uniform as they try to compress all the romance and danger of New York City into a 24 hour shore leave. There is a bittersweet subtext here that the musical only subliminally hints at. These young service men embrace their temporary freedom with a zeal that understands it just might be their last. Just as musical comedy affords audiences an escape from our own realities, Gabey, Chip and Ozzie celebrate going “on the town” as a respite from the dangers and drudgeries of the war awaiting their return. The unexpectedly poignant “Some Other Time” bears this thought in mind. But for the rest of our 2 hour and 15 minute excursion it’s smooth sailing on a sea of nostalgia.

Max Clayton, Seth Danner and Jeff Smith embody all the fresh scrubbed giddiness and optimism of our love and adventure seeking trio. They are about as wholesome, hunky and hearty as any American sailor has the right to be and as physically dexterous as none could be. The handsome and lanky Smith in particular demonstrates superb and malleable physical comedy and outstanding timing. Clayton is the essence of the romantic dreamer whose search for New York’s prized pin-up girl “Miss Turnstiles” (the radiant Alison Jantzie) sets the slight tale in motion. And Danner’s adorable nebbish is the perfect contrast to Marya Grandy’s relentless sex-hungry cab driver Hildy.

Danner and Grandy bring the house down with “Come Up to My Place,” which finds tourist and guide pining for differing destinations all the while taking a joy ride through the city’s fabled attractions. Not content with a single showstopper, Grandy proceeds to tear the roof off the theatre with her sizzling “I Can Cook Too”. The business with a banana could almost earn the show a PG-13 rating were it not such a sweetly inoffensive innuendo. Johanna McKenzie Miller’s glorious pipes are always a welcome pleasure in the role of Anthropologist Claire DeLoone, who discovers her perfect “specimen” in Ozzie (Smith). Alex Goodrich makes the most of a minor assignment as her “understanding” mensch of a fiancée, and the great Barbara Robertson chews every bit of scenery from Lincolnshire to Brooklyn as a devious drunken voice and dance instructor.

Set designer Thomas M. Ryan has completely surrounded the audience and the Marriott’s theatre in the round with a dazzling illusion of New York City. Lighting designer Jesse Klug’s twinkling marquees and magical skyline add a heightened sense of glamour and decadence that help make this New York City one helluva town. I heartily advise anyone within travel or commuting distance of Lincolnshire to make a pilgrimage to “On the Town”. It is the perfect kind of song and dance revelry that is the defining standard of the Marriott Theatre and which has once again been delivered in gleaming glory. Don’t wait another seventy years for it to come to town again.