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THE NEW MAN ABOUT 'TOWN' : Andrew Barnicle Talks About His Musical Debut As Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director

August 29, 1991|JAN HERMAN | Jan Herman covers theater for The Times Orange County Edition.

"Dream. Fantasy. Love. How's that sound?"

Like a telegram from someone gone off the deep end. And maybe he has, though he looked quite sane the other day watching his choreographer and two lead actors run through a second-act pas de deux from "On the Town."

But director Andrew Barnicle's shorthand is as accurate as any to describe the essential flavor of the 1944 musical classic, which launches the Laguna Playhouse's new season Tuesday at the Moulton Theatre in Laguna Beach.

"I thought it would be attractive in terms of old-fashioned Broadway and yet would be esoteric enough to do," he adds, cognizant that the revival also marks his debut as artistic director of the 71-year-old amateur Playhouse (succeeding Douglas Rowe, who retired earlier this summer after 15 years in the post).

"Not very many production organizations dare to try this show, certainly not at this level, because it's so hard to cast. You can't find a large enough company that can sing and dance and act. So it's a challenge and it's highly aesthetic, which is what gets me involved."

Barnicle, a former actor who headed the theater department at U.S. International University in San Diego before coming here, points out that "On the Town" rings familiar because of the MGM film made from it with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller and Vera-Ellen. "But," says the tall, strapping, 40-year-old director, "I don't think too many people have seen the show on stage. There's only a handful of them. I never have. We've all seen the movie, but it's radically different from the play."

In fact, when the screen version of "On the Town" came out in 1949, anyone who had seen the original Broadway production would have realized that everything from the music by Leonard Bernstein to the book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green to the choreography by Jerome Robbins was tinkered with, altered wholesale or cut entirely.

"Having Ann Miller, for instance, they added all kinds of tap numbers," says Barnicle. "They also eliminated peripheral characters and rewrote scenes."

Because of a preproduction deal with MGM--one of the first of its kind, providing the $125,000 Broadway show with most of its financing--the Hollywood studio was entitled to do more or less what it liked with the screen property.

"They were a little afraid of the Bernstein music," Betty Comden told a Dramatists Guild symposium in 1981. "On top of that, Gene Kelly was playing what had to be a romantic lead. He couldn't sing the ballads, so there was a whole shifting over of the story to make it quite different."

Nevertheless, the central plot remained: Three World War II sailors arrive at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and head over to Manhattan on a 24-hour shore leave, where they meet the loves of their lives.

Gabey, an incurable romantic, falls for Miss Turnstiles, a glamorous subway-poster girl named Ivy Smith who turns out to be a belly dancer at Coney Island; Ozzie, who is something of a clown, lands a man-hungry female anthropologist at the Museum of Natural History; and Chip, who plays hard to get, is reeled in by a streetwise, equally man-hungry cab driver.

Also surviving translation to the screen was the '40s vintage romance of the city itself, expressed in naive, wistful, sappy affection for a place and period idealized by the stage production's young creators and vividly embodied in the hallmark anthem "New York, New York, It's a Helluva Town." But Bernstein, for one, was embarrassed by the new songs added to the movie.

"I don't think MGM was so much afraid of the 'Prokofiev music,' " he told the symposium, alluding to Broadway director George Abbott's joking terminology for the show's symphonic score. "Almost all of it was used in the movie (as well as) all the ballet music, which was a tough nut to crack. What did not stay in the film were the songs. An associate producer of the picture arranged to write six songs of his own to replace six of mine."

When Bernstein discovered what had happened, he asked to have his name removed from the main credits, except for his own song listings. "I really don't want anybody to think I wrote a title song called 'On the Town,' which I certainly didn't," he explained, "or songs called 'Back Home' or 'Mainstreet.' "

For all Barnicle's intent to keep faith with the original conception and to stage an authentic "On the Town," the Playhouse revival is guaranteed to be different from its source, not least because Jerome Robbins' choreography is being replaced by Jack Tygett's (see accompanying story) and Bernstein's music will be filtered through a five-piece band. Furthermore, the scenic arrangements will consist of moving unit sets instead of a series of backdrops.

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