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On the Town

The 1944 musical is back on Broadway with a 28-piece orchestra and a 30-member cast. logo
Clyde Alves, Tony Yazbeck, and Jay Armstrong Johnson lead the cast of On the Town at the Lyric Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Bigger isn't always better. When John Rando's revival of On the Town premiered at Barrington Stage Company in the summer of 2013, smallness was born of necessity; it was summer stock, after all. There was a wonderful humanity that came along with it. Rando found some serious gravitas in the silly tale of three sailors looking for love on their way to war. So it's mighty discouraging that the Broadway version of this production, at the newly renamed Lyric Theatre (formerly the Foxwoods), is intent on pushing the humor to the furthest reaches of the third balcony of this massive house. Fortunately, there are six central performances so exceptional that they make up for said deficiencies.

Five of the leads — Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Clyde Alves, Elizabeth Stanley, and Alysha Umphress — return to the daffy characters they played in the Berkshires. Stalwarts who've never had the chance to tackle leading roles, this is their moment to shine, and they really do, to star-is-finally-born affect. In a thrilling, incomparable theater debut, Megan Fairchild, one of New York City Ballet's principal dancers, joins the cast in the smallest of all six principal roles, but perhaps the most important. She sets into motion the zany mayhem that is Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green's 1944 musical classic.

The central characters are three Navy men on shore leave who try to conquer all of Manhattan in the 24 hours before they go to war. Chip (Johnson) wants to see the sights. Ozzie (Alves) wants to pick up a woman, any woman. Gabey (Yazbeck) has one want in particular: Ivy Smith (Fairchild), the reigning Miss Turnstiles, whose photo he sees on a subway poster. From there, he and his pals set out to find her, while along the way Ozzie falls for randy anthropologist Claire DeLoone (Stanley) and Chip for seductive cabbie Hildy Esterhazy (Umphress).

To be fair, there's room for broad humor, but not this much. As funny as On the Town is, it is also sneakily poignant, resting on an emotional transparency that here is only apparent in fits and starts. It's hard not to be touched by a song like "Some Other Time," where Stanley, Alves, Umphress, and Johnson lament how fast the day has gone and promise to meet up again, if that ever even happens. A delightful foursome together, they're just as special individually. Hildy becomes a sex kitten in Umphress' accomplished hands, and she adds some killer vocal pyrotechnics to the jazzy "I Can Cook, Too." Stanley and Alves show off their spot-on comic timing during the first-act showstopper "Carried Away," when they get to dance with a gigantic dinosaur puppet. Armstrong's stellar physical comedy puts his rubber limbs to good use.

Yazbeck's Gabey is such a warm, earnest fella that it's hard not to root for him to get the girl, especially when he has such palpable chemistry with the sweetly wide-eyed Fairchild. When their bodies finally intertwine during the second act's dazzling Coney Island ballet, they're talking in a language all their own, one that's so sexy that when it's done you feel like you need a smoke. Joshua Bergasse, operating in the style of Jerome Robbins, caters to this ensemble's strong suits and produces some of the most thrilling choreography in years.

On the other hand, the cast members fall too often into easy laughs that are more distracting than they are funny. Bulging eyeballs and phallic loaves of bread wink to the audience. Weirdly contemporary new jokes by playwrights Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins don't match the urbane witticisms of Comden and Green's script. Jackie Hoffman, in a series of ancillary character roles, mugs to high heaven. When Yazbeck and the gifted ensemble can bring down the house with a haunting ballad like "Lonely Town" just by singing from the depths of their souls, it leaves this newfound abundance of shtick in the dust. Not all the bigness is a bad thing, however. We get to hear a 28-piece orchestra play the original Hershey Kay-Leonard Bernstein orchestrations under the careful baton of James Moore.

In terms of the physical production, it's touch and go. Beowulf Boritt provides a period-unspecific set in the form of shiny blue silhouettes and projections on a massive video screen. Sometimes these elements work (the Coney Island backdrop is gorgeous); other times, they really don't (a bouncy car seat and fast-moving videos distract from the organically comical "Come Up to My Place"). Jason Lyons and Jess Goldstein provide colorful lighting and costumes in the jazz-age mold. Sound designer Kai Harada thankfully doesn't overamplify, and not only can we hear the musicians in all their glory, but the actors don't sound far away, either.

Even though On the Town is 70 years old, in these perilous days of overseas discomfort, the story is just as relevant now as it was in the midst of World War II. With a little more faith in the material and a little less desire to push for laughs, Rando would have a perfectly calibrated production on his hands. But we should be thankful no matter what. This crowd-pleasing Golden Age musical has been absent for far too long and is finally back where it deserves to be.