Sunday, March 20, 2005

On the Town (Beck Center)

‘ON THE TOWN’ gets lost at Beck

‘ON THE TOWN,’ the production now on stage at Beck Center, is a musical-comedy extension of ‘FANCY-FREE,’ a ballet with choreography by Jerome Robbins and music by Leonard Bernstein.

Like ‘FANCY FREE,’ ‘ON THE TOWN’ tells the story of three sailors during World War II and their amorous adventures on a 24-hour shore leave in the Big Apple (”New York, New York”), but expands the development of the characters and comic situations.

This show introduced to Broadway two creative geniuses who would make vast contributions to the American musical theatre. This was Leonard Bernstein's first musical theatre score and Jerome Robbins' first assignment as choreographer in musical comedy. It also opened the door for two other soon-to-be-Broadway heavyweights-- Betty Comden and Adolph Green. When it opened on Broadway in 1944 ‘ON THE TOWN’ was an instant hit and ran for 436 performances.

Interestingly, when MGM acquired the film rights Louis B. Mayer, the studio’s chief executive disliked Bernstein's score so much that he replaced almost all of it. If you see the movie and stage versions you will find two different scores. The movie, which went on to win an Academy Award, starred Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Jules Munshin,
Ann Miller and Judy Holliday.

The New York Times called the stage version, "One of the freshest musicals to come into town in a long time." The review went on to say that “Its breathless pace and feeling of excitement was maintained from opening curtain to the finale.”

Unfortunately, in the Beck version, the breathless pace, the feelings of excitement and the wackiness are generally missing. After staging super hits like RAGTIME and MAN OF LA MANCHA at JCC, Fred Sternfeld, one of the areas best musical theatre directors, seems to have lost his way in this show. He decided to use shticks and gimmicks to help develop the delight of the show instead of using the natural aspects of the show. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work.

Part of the problem isn’t Sternfeld’s. ‘ON THE TOWN’ is a dated show. To make the production work, it needs a cast who understands the movement, the speech and the dance styles of the1940s. Sternfeld’s assemblage, which consists mainly of teenagers, just can’t place themselves in that era.

In addition, this is a dance show. It requires that almost everyone in the cast be a superb dancer. Choreographer Martin Cespedes does his usual creative job of staging the movements. But, even the talented Cespedes can’t make dancers out of a cast, many of who whom aren’t dancers. Some of the numbers look rag-tag with the performers trying their best but not always succeeding.

To add to the difficulty is Bernstein’s music. The score is hard to play and harder to sing. The musicians, under the direction of Larry Goodpaster, needed to have a big band sound. They, as with the cast, try hard, but there is a “little” sound rather than the fullness of the music of the era. Vocally, the choral sounds, a key to success with Bernstein, were often missing appropriate blendings.

Colin Cook sparkles as Chip, the sailor who only wants to see the sights. The scene (“Come Up to My Place”) in which he is seduced by a female cab driver (Amiee Collier) was delightful. He sings well and has a clear concept of his role.

Sean Szaller is properly gawky as Gabey, complete with farm boy charm. Joseph Fronadel, as the hopping-hormoned Ozzie misses the mark on several levels. He lacks the acting polish and the vocal talents to pull off the role.

Katelyn Blockinger dances and sings well, but lacks the acting depth needed to pull off the role of Ivy, Gabey’s love interest. Maggie Stahl never develops a consistent characterization at Clair De Loone. There should be a Judy Holliday daffiness to the role. Paul Floriano, the production’s only Actors Equity performer, is fine, but seems wasted in a small role.

Abram Hegewald and Linda Mementowski are wonderful in a classical ballet segment which comes directly from ‘FANCY FREE.’ These are two talented kids!

All is not lost. The opening night audience was seemingly enthralled. The two high school kids sitting next to me applauded and laughed consistently and were amazed by “the awesome dancing” and the “unbelievable talent of my friends in the cast.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘ON THE TOWN’ is a dated and very difficult show to stage. In spite of a valiant effort, the Beck cast simply isn’t up to the task.