My first reaction to this vote-catching English National Opera revival of On the Town is that if the ENO is going to mess with great musicals, then they had better mess with them properly. After the shrinking disappointment of Martin Duncan’s production of The Gondoliers (much better when first seen at Chichester), Jude Kelly’s revival of the 1944 debut Broadway show of four major talents – composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricists and librettists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and choreographer Jerome Robbins – is competent, a little too dark, and appallingly microphoned.
I have nothing against microphones if they’re used effectively and fit with the live sound in the pit. Here, only Lucy Schaufer as the art gallery vamp Claire de Loone, and Graeme Danby (sharing the role with the last ENO Falstaff, Andrew Shore) as her too amenable fat fiancé, know how to throw their voices against both the nasty sound system and the marvellously manic orchestral playing under Simon Lee (moonlighting from MD duties on both Evita and The Sound of Music).
Two years ago, the show was more like a gloomy night in the Ukraine than a wild shindig in Manhattan. In fact, Kelly and her designer Robert Jones get a real sense – very different from the bowdlerised but irresistible film version starring Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen – of a place where friendship is fleeting and melancholy on tap. This is a city of steel girders and echoing warehouses where shore leave for sailors is an invitation to aberrant, unbridled behaviour. The irruptions in the second act club crawl are delightful.
Which reminds us that the show is based on a ballet, Fancy Free, by Robbins and Bernstein, a legacy that choreographer Stephen Mear exploits to the full, with his beautiful phalanxes, frieze-style line-ups and superb sense of space between people. There’s an Edward Hopper quality about the silhouetted figures bopping on the underground, or slouching on a long steel girder doubling as a bar, making this the second ENO show (the first was Jonathan Miller’s legendary “jukebox” Rigoletto) to invoke the great American painter.
The chase for the poster pin-up “Miss Turnstiles” takes the sailors tumbling through the Museum of Natural History, Central Park, Times Square and Coney Island, which is brilliantly evoked in lights and sideshows. The Statue of Liberty is picked out in fallen, horizontal outline, a luminous echo of the dinosaur skeleton in the museum and the wonderful bright yellow cage of a New York cab.
Ryan Molloy, Sean Palmer and Joshua Dallas, all making ENO debuts, are fine if indistinguishable as the three sailors, and the incomparable June Whitfield, another ENO debutant, has replaced Sylvia Syms as the increasingly sozzled music teacher. Caroline O'Connor repeats her full-on performance as the man-eating cab-driver and Janine Duvitski encores her comedy turn as the ugly flatmate who solves one of the romantic problems by falling for the affable fiancé.
In the end, the music wins through. Bernstein’s score is a wonderful mix of old Broadway, new jazz and African-American spirituals, especially notable for the stunning orchestrations and wistful melodies of isolation and urban foreboding in “Lonely Town” and “Lucky to Be Me”. The costumes are spot on and most of the hem-lines in the right place.
- Michael Coveney
NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from March 2005 and this production's original run at the London Coliseum.
With On the Town, the London Coliseum returns to its pre-English National Opera era as a once-fabled home to West End runs for Broadway musicals, when shows like Guys and Dolls (another musical Valentine to New York, and also coincidentally about to be revived in the West End) and Kiss Me Kate received their London premieres there in the 1940s and 50s. But now it’s English National Opera itself that’s offering this rare revival of the 1944 Broadway musical, the show’s first London staging since it was originally produced on this side of the Atlantic at the Prince of Wales in 1963.
Its re-appearance here now marks an appropriate marriage of the two worlds that its composer Leonard Bernstein himself inhabited. On the one hand, there’s his Broadway composing career that was launched with this show; on the other, he was a considerable classical composer and conductor, too.
ENO’s production straddles the divide neatly, and even if the show begins with the extreme luxury casting of veteran opera singer Willard W White as a navy shipyard workman who sings the brief but tenderly beautiful “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet” and then disappears, it mostly tips its casting hat towards musical theatre performers rather than operatic ones. That’s the first smart decision of director Jude Kelly and conductor Simon Lee.
They’re also able to marshal the massive resources of personnel that nowadays only an opera house can afford. As well as a dozen principal performers and 22 dancers (put through their considerable paces by the dazzling period choreography of Stephen Mear), they have also drawn on 24 ENO chorus members. Then there’s the ENO orchestra of 48 players which, in the era of Sinfonia and electronic orchestras when there are rarely more than a dozen players in the pit anymore, is simply thrilling.
It’s certainly joyous to bask in the comfort of one of London’s most gorgeously restored theatres and hear this wonderful score come alive so scintillatingly. However, there are also, it must be frankly admitted, longueurs. The show needs to be as frantic and hurtling as the three sailors are in their attempt to cram a lot of living and hopefully a bit of loving into their 24-hours of shore leave in New York City, but Kelly is also overly determined to cast darker, more mortal shadows.
That’s evident from the moment the curtain goes up on an opening montage of sailors and their battleship against a soundtrack of battle sounds. It’s apparent, too, throughout in Robert Jones’ gritty design that summons a New York in a state of seemingly perpetual construction, as every environment from the subway to nightclubs is made up of copper-coloured steel girders.