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STAGE REVIEW : Boisterous Tribute to the Big Apple

November 05, 1987|Mark Chalon Smith

Cal State Fullerton's "On the Town" is a kick for one good reason--it imaginatively captures the irrepressible and unpredictable character of New York, the city it glorifies.

Director Dean Hess clearly knows that Manhattan can be a very wild place, and he approaches Leonard Bernstein's 1944 musical like someone on a one-night stopover looking for thrills.

The results are invigorating, from Robert Christianson's athletically goofy choreography (dancers shift from fur-shaking cavemen in one scene to be-bopping "church ladies" in the next) to Todd Muffatti's whimsical sets of crowded subway cars, bright-yellow taxis, dim nightclubs--and even a natural history museum (complete with a dinosaur exhibition).

It's a jazzy, screwball production that makes the most of Bernstein's antic and slightly bawdy score (vigorously played by the Mitchell Fennell-led orchestra) and Betty Comden and Adolph Green's wise-guy clever lyrics. Hess' colorful handling helps to raise the musical above its vacant plot, which, in the tradition of Broadway hits of the 40s, is short on substance but long on style.

What we get is a gaping look at New York City through the eyes of three eager sailors on a 24-hour shore leave. While chasing thrills, one falls for a subway poster of the dishy "Miss Turnstiles," and they all begin a borough-crossing trek to find her. Everyone meets a girl of his own, and everyone falls in love. Oh boy.

The goings-on might not be so palatable if the trio and their flames weren't so likable. Jeff Sudakov (as the sensitive Gabey), Forrest Robinson (playing the cocky Ozzie) and James Bonnar (as the morally upright Chip) offer game portrayals, big on comic shenanigans and effective singing. And Carrie Foster (as Ivy), Shannon McCleerey (as Hildy) and Meredith Woodson (as Claire de Loone) keep up their part of the deal. Woodson is particularly witty on "I Get Carried Away, her dizzy duet with Robinson, and McCleerey is a brassy blast on "I Can Cook Too."

There's no disputing that "On the Town" is a pretty naive vision of New York City--for contrast, just look at Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's "West Side Story," with its dark references to big city racism and gang violence, which came out 13 years later. But its glistening superficiality is much of the appeal. All it wants to be is a boisterous, uplifting tribute to the Big Apple and, at least at CSUF, that's just what it is.

'ON THE TOWN' A Cal State Fullerton production of the 1944 musical. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Directed by Dean Hess. Choreography by Robert Christianson. Sets by Todd Muffatti. Costumes by Deborah Slate. Lighting by Susan Hallman. Music conducted by Mitchell Fennell. With Sam Robinson, Forrest Robinson, James Bonnar, Jeff Sudakov, James Kahn, Howard Johnston, Marlene Damon, Kimberley Anne Swatton, Sylvia Biller, Carrie Foster, Joey Ancona, Shannon McCleerey, Jaimes Palacio, Lawrence Wenner, Meredith Woodson, Jose Fernandez, Monica Guerra, Laura Meals, Lori Foerch, Kevin Bossenmeyer, Carolyn von Reyn, Jawnee Macias, Emily Susan Messamer, Ric Strauss, Maria Schindelmann, Sharon Widner, Gordon Foster, Ann McPherson and Jeff Cadwell. Plays today through Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. at CSUF's Little Theatre. Tickets: $7, $8. (714) 773-3628.

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