Dance was originally at the heart of this 1944 musical. Most will know it from the 1949 film starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, which was changed quite drastically for screen and much of the dance removed. The musical was based on a radical ballet, choreographed by Jerome Robbins – him of West Side Story fame. And director-choreographer Drew McOnie has taken On the Town right back to its roots. This show is all about the movement.
It's a small story, which touches on big themes. Three provincial sailors – Gabey, Chip and Ozzie – come off a boat to spend 24 hours in New York – a city which, in their eyes, is full to brimming with the American Dream. The potential for sights, scenes and, well, seducing, is unlimited. Between them they hatch a plan to find the lady Gabey has just fallen for – a woman he sees on a poster on the subway who has won 'Miss Turnstiles' for the month of June. Chip and Ozzie forego their own searches in order to find the elusive Ivy Smith. Find her they don't – Gabey himself manages that – but they instead find two other swell ladies to entertain them.
On paper it all sounds horribly one-track-minded and more than a little dated in its treatment of women. But in reality it's played out with charm, character and class. Ozzie is more interested in New York's great monuments than the female of the species and the women Ozzie and Chip wind up with – Hildy and Claire – are more than able to hold their own. One's a scientist, the other a taxi driver and they have such a bracing sexual appetite it's hard to know who is seducing whom. The women practically dive onto the sailors, who seem a little on the meek side when faced with such forthrightness.
In fact, the show is all about the dance, yes, but it is also all about the ladies. McOnie's production begins a little lukewarm, but by the time Lizzy Connolly's Hildy is on stage in her waistcoat and breeches, On the Town finds its feet and runs. It is Connolly, Siena Kelly as Ivy and Miriam-Teak Lee as Claire who steal this show. Connolly is hilarious in her set pieces "Come Up To My Place" and "I Can Cook Too" – a song which plays with the notion that women should be excellent in the kitchen. She is graceful and hilarious and manages Hildy's comedy with ease and perfect timing which is much the same with Lee in "Carried Away". All three are superb dancers, but McOnie makes Kelly work most during the lengthy dance sequences and you can see why. She is excellent.
The guys are also good, although they have less presence. Jacob Maynard – the understudy brought on at the last minute – holds his own as Chip, while Danny Mac embraces the balance of singing and movement very well. Samuel Edwards provides strong support to both of these as Ozzie.
McOnie really does make sure the original heart of dance is pumping. He packs the large ensemble cast onto the fairly small stage for deliciously raunchy and hauntingly emotional pack numbers. With "Lonely Town", a song which reveals why sailors might search so hard for companionship, McOnie shows us a pas de deux between two men, meeting covertly behind closed doors. It is a beautiful homage to forbidden love.
Leonard Bernstein's music, coupled with Betty Comden and Adolph Green's witty lyrics, is predictably brilliant. There are also some hilarious one-liners: "Sex and art don't mix," says Ivy's drunkard singing teacher at one point, "If they did, I would have gone straight to the top." The musical is peppered with awfully smutty gags which will make you guffaw. Beneath a naïve veneer, this show is as dirty as hell.
Peter McKintosh's designs have the cast in vibrant pastel colours which contrast beautifully with the white of the sailor's outfits and his sets come alive towards the end of the piece. Lit up by flashing coloured lightbulbs, the iron scaffolding, made to look like blocks of shipping containers, swell with light.
Unfortunately, On the Town doesn't really have an ending, the sailors pop back on their ship and what we thought were their true loves, are left to wave them off. It's a little disappointing. But the ride along the way is so much fun, it's hard to hold a grudge. It's great that On the Town is back in town.
On the Town runs at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre until 1 July.