Why is it that On the Town, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green's classic musical about a trio of navy men searching for love in the Big Apple on their day of shore leave, has never really been successful in the town of the title? True, the original production, in 1944, made the creative team into household names and ran a solid 462 performances, but subsequent Broadway revivals (one in 1971, the other in 1998) never caught fire, both closing after nearly a dozen weeks.
A delightful 2008 New York City Center Encores! staging, directed by John Rando, got it almost right, and now, five years later, Rando is further exploring the show — to a truly shimmering effect — at Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires. It may be summer stock, but you'd never know it from the Broadway-quality production running through July 13 on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage.
This one gets it right from before the lights go down, opening with "The Star-Spangled Banner" in lieu of an overture, a nod to the original production that started the exact same way. From there, the madcap musical takes off like a runaway freighter, and for slightly over two hours, the prospect of three dopey sailors finding the perfect mate before they have to leave New York is as high-stakes as a season finale of Breaking Bad.
You see, Rando has done something surprising: He's turned a deliriously silly story, with an ending you can see coming from the very start, into a genuine suspense thriller. Never has the prospect of the lovelorn Gabey (Tony Yazbeck) not finding Ivy Smith (Deanna Doyle), whose photo he fell for when he saw it on a subway advertisement, seemed as tense. Never have the intrusions of the understanding Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework (Michael Rupert) on the budding relationship between his fiancée, anthropologist Claire De Loone (Stanley) and the macho sailor Ozzie (Alves), seemed as annoying. And please, Chip (Johnson), we know how you feel about Hildy (Umphress): Stop protesting and go up to her apartment already.
In the uniformly excellent company, which also includes comic gem Nancy Opel in three roles, it is the big-voiced Umphress, a veteran of Broadway's American Idiot and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, who stands out the most as Hildy, the brash taxi driver in need of an afternoon roll in the hay with Johnson's lovable Chip. The earnest Alves and wide-eyed Stanley make a similarly terrific pairing, despite Rupert's comic interference. And if there's any question about how steamy dance can get, just watch Yazbeck's Gabey whose heart is completely visible on his sleeve, and Doyle's sweetly naïve Ivy, perform Joshua Bergasse's first-rate and sensual choreography.
Rando also impeccably handles the second act's sudden tonal shift, when the characters realize that their day is almost over. The resulting song, "Some Other Time," has never seemed quite as moving as it does here. Just as the characters don't wish to recognize the end of their time together, we don't wish to recognize that this wonderful production is nearing its conclusion.