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THEATER REVIEW 'ON THE TOWN' : Shore Leave : Conejo Players' offering is low-budget, but wonders are worked, thanks partly to imagination and an industrious crew.

July 04, 1991|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Its youthful blend of musical comedy, jazz and ballet ushered in a new era when "On the Town" debuted on Broadway in late December, 1944, and ran a more-than-respectable 463 performances.

From our present vantage point, the offering by the Conejo Players for its Conejo Afternoon Theater can be seen as a precursor of "West Side Story," a less comic blend of the same elements from 1957. And, as with "West Side Story," "On the Town" drew upon the talents of choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein and set designer Oliver Smith.

"On the Town" sprung from a well-received Robbins-Bernstein ballet from April, 1944, "Fancy Free." It was expanded for Broadway with a featherweight book by Bernstein's then-roommate, Adolph Green, and Green's partner, Betty Comden (both of whom also appeared in "On the Town"). Lyrics were by Comden, Green and Bernstein.

The show is important historically for launching the long and distinguished Broadway careers of all three writers and Robbins. While Bernstein and Robbins are no longer with us, Comden and Green wrote the lyrics for the current Broadway musical and Tony-award winner, "Will Rogers Follies."

In "On the Town," three gobs on shore leave in the Big Apple hope to meet some local girls. Two aren't particular; the third falls in love with a poster of the current "Miss Turnstiles," a Transit Authority-designated beauty queen of the month.

The Conejo production is forced to use the same space designated for "A Midsummer Night's Dream," also at the theater. That, and the musical's relatively few (and low-priced) performances, demand a low-budget production. Still, director/choreographer Darren Frank and set designer Tom Knotek work wonders within those limitations, thanks to imagination, an industrious crew and a revolving stage.

While the songs aren't among the most glorious in the history of musical theater, they're serviceable. One, "New York, New York," has become something of a standard, though not the one identified with Liza Minnelli and Frank Sinatra.

"I Can Cook, Too," sung by amorous cabdriver Hildy (a character first played by comedienne Nancy Walker) is amusing, and there is an opening number ("I Feel Like I'm Not Out of Bed Yet") that sounds like a parody of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Last week's performance suffered, when it did, from apparent lethargy. While Peter C. Sroka and (especially) Cody Murphy were animated and joyous as sailors Chip and Ozzie, Tom Rosa seemed distracted as their companion, Gabey. True, Gabey's a lovesick puppy much of the time, but he never did seem to cheer up Sunday.

The supporting characters are more consistent. Amy Greenberg and Aileen-Marie Scott are very funny as anthropologist Claire de Loone and cabbie Hildy, and Crystal St. Romain is amusing as Hildy's flu-suffering roommate.

Nina Genne, a trained dancer, plays "Miss Turnstiles" Ivy Smith, a part originated by ballerina Sono Osato.

There is a large ensemble of dancers and singers, two of whom, Albert Fuchs and Justin Gable, rather confusingly substitute for Sroka and Murphy in one of the ballet sequences.

Some of the music is prerecorded; most is supplied by an able offstage quintet led by musical director Cheryl Talbot and including flutist Rhondda Dayton, percussionist Ken Dayton and bassist Steve Bringleston. Talbot and Chris Deklotz can be heard on keyboard instruments.

WHERE AND WHEN

"On the Town" continues Sunday afternoons at 2:30 through July 14 at the Conejo Players Theater, 351 S. Moorpark Road, in Thousand Oaks. All tickets are $5, and are sold at the door on a first-come, first-served basis. The shows do tend to sell out, so plan on an early arrival. For tickets or information, call (805) 495-3715.

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