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STAGE REVIEW : 'On the Town' Revives Rousing, Steamy Romance

February 19, 1990|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once upon a time, New York, New York was "a hell of a town."

Couples could pick each other up on its not-so-mean streets without worrying about being mugged, raped or infected. It was 1944, and the war was raging in Europe and Asia, not in Gotham.

California Music Theatre's revival of "On the Town" catches the spirit of this can-do, just-say-yes era in most of its glory.

At the opening Saturday, it took a while for the show to reach across the orchestra pit of the cavernous Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Perhaps some effort was required for today's audience to care about the romantic notions of three sailors on a 24-hour shore leave 46 years ago. But it finally connected; this is one of the liveliest CMT shows yet.

According to the producers, "On the Town" hasn't been staged professionally in these parts in 31 years. That means an entire generation of theatergoers hasn't heard Leonard Bernstein's most obvious prelude to "West Side Story."

A few of the musical phrases sound as if you could substitute gang members for this show's sailors and presto--"West Side Story." The CMT orchestra gets one of its most vigorous workouts, and it responds well under the baton of Jeff Rizzo.

The show was adapted from the Bernstein/Jerome Robbins ballet "Fancy Free," and dancing remains at its heart. Choreographers Patti Colombo and Leslie Woodies have filled the stage with dynamic street scenes and lush, romantic fantasies. Ward Carlisle's lighting lends a storybook glow to those fantasy scenes, and the dancers perform with precision and ardor.

The vocal score isn't half as powerful as that of "West Side Story," but it has its moments ("I Can Cook Too," "Some Other Time"), and the lyrics and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green provide enough wisecracks to bring the fairy tale down to earth and remind us that this is the good old U.S.A.

Comden and Green also wrote a sexual hunger into their characters, particularly the women, that clears away some of the cobwebs that might otherwise surround this story. At least this production's actors, under the direction of Thomas White, signal the intentions of these characters to climb into bed with each other as soon as possible.

If only they had another 24 hours. . . .

Taxi driver Hildy Esterhazy (Lorna Patterson) is the hungriest. She pursues one of the three sailors, Chip (George Ratliff), with unrelenting stamina. Patterson has a brassy voice and attitude, and Ratliff's nice-guy efforts to cope with her are amusing.

The sailors' shore leave is organized around the search of Gabey (Timothy Smith) for Ivy Smith (Lisa Embs), Miss Turnstiles for June, whose image he spots on a poster in the subway. Smith gets the show's best numbers, vocally as well as in the dance department, and he has them perfectly polished, though he doesn't project a particularly distinctive personality. Embs, whose looks are straight out of the '40s, is cute, in the best sense of the word, and dances up a storm with Smith.

The third couple consists of gangly Ozzie (Paul Cira) and the aristocratic anthropologist Claire De Loone (Dorothy Brooks), who's studying modern men at the museum. Cira has a buttery voice (though not quite as buttery as that of Peter Renaday, whose wake-up call starts the show). Brooks has the proper hauteur, but she's just as adept at Claire's improper side.

Robert Zentis provides a glimpse of the period with photos projected on three mobile screens, but a few of these are so washed out or out-of-focus that Manhattan begins to look bombed out. However, the screens keep the stage in motion, and thereby suggest the hubbub of this 24-hour town. They're accompanied by a few portable set pieces, which (along with Pamela Johnson-Gill's period costumes) add color to the palette.

At 300 E. Green St. Pasadena, Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m., then Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through March 4. Tickets: $17.50-$32.50; (213) 410-1062.

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