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WEEKEND REVIEWS / Theater Review

'On the Town' Makes Light, Joyful Landing on Broadway

November 23, 1998|LINDA WINER-BERNHEIMER | FOR THE TIMES

NEW YORK — The sailors no longer seem to appear at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as if rising, awe-struck, from the hushed, early-morning newness of the horizon itself. None of the giddy young men hang sideways from the handsome old New York lampposts as if just sprung from Gene Kelly exuberance boot camp. And, no matter how hard we try, it's impossible to imagine that the cavernous Gershwin Theatre is half as magical a backdrop as a Central Park summer night for luxuriating in the breezy, bittersweet blessings of "On the Town."

But George C. Wolfe has, indeed, defied mixed reviews, discouragement from commercial producers and vanishing backers to bring the New York Shakespeare Festival's 1997 production of Leonard Bernstein's 1944 sailors-in-New-York musical-comedy classic to Broadway. Wolfe's enjoyable revival--more precisely, his revival of his revival--has survived at least three different choreographers, major recasting and his own kidney-transplant surgery to arrive without visible signs of the bruising journey.

If anything, the new version--nervily financed entirely now by the nonprofit downtown theater at somewhere between $5 million and $6 million--feels more lighthearted and easygoing than did the evening in the park. We miss the throat-catching poetry of that production's opening vista, the sense of unspoiled hunger, joy and helplessness that hung over the sailors' last 24-hour shore leave before shipping out to World War II. We also feel somewhat baffled by the abandonment of Eliot Feld's maligned choreography--talk about random violence--in favor of pleasantly unobtrusive work by newcomer Keith Young that, for the most part, seems more like functional musical stagings than the motor for what was once a Jerome Robbins, dance-driven show.

Still, though it is never going to be one of the great musicals or one of the urgently needed revivals, at Friday's preview this "On the Town" proved to be a sweetly unassuming divertissement and a deceptively crafty slice of art-house Americana. Wolfe's rethought production still has its major claim to fame from that summer. In other words, it has Lea DeLaria, the celebrated out-lesbian comic, as an unconventional lusty trucker of a cabby named Hildy, who turns this ensemble character into a scene-stealing combination of Ethel Merman, Rosie the Riveter and Rosie O'Donnell. And, of course, Wolfe still has the innocent-but-sly words of Betty Comden and Adolph Green--hit less frantically now--not to mention the wonders of Bernstein's first urban-eclectic show-biz score.

For the millions raised on just the Stanley Donen-Gene Kelly movie, the show should be little short of a musical revelation. Only four of Bernstein's songs were used by Hollywood, much to his dismay. Has anyone ever captured the nervous, insistent, jazzy rhythms, the late-night sensuality and screwball charms of city music with such accessible yet brainy theatrical flair? With a superb orchestra high onstage on Adrianne Lobel's enchanting bridge of a set, we can finally understand the range--and we try to imagine what Bernstein would have made of the American musical if he were not ashamed of its lowbrow connotations.

Except for DeLaria, who was a theatrical novice two summers ago, this is again a no-star, multiethnic, ensemble cast meant to capture the anything-can-happen idealism of the show's youthful creators while looking like the colors of today. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the skinny, puny redhead with the big style, remains as Hildy's unlikely love interest--played by some guy named Sinatra in the movie. Robert Montano has settled comfortably into the amiably macho role of Ozzie, while newcomer Perry Laylon Ojeda, the new, improved Gabey, trusts the material--and these dullish ballads don't make it easy--enough to stand still and simply sing it.

The women again tend to be bigger than the men and, if memory serves, the pushy dames are even more boisterous sexual predators. Sarah Knowlton has gutsy comic timing--if not quite the vocal top--for Claire DeLoone, the libidinous anthropologist. Mary Testa is even funnier--think Jo Anne Worley with taste--as the boozy singing teacher, and Annie Golden is so terrific as Hildy's gurgling, mousy roommate that we yearn again for someone to find her a part worthy of her gifts.

Tai Jimenez is a real find as the new Miss Turnstiles and the object of Gabey's obsessive search through Manhattan. We didn't have to look in the program to see that Jimenez has the long-legged, hyperextended alacrity of a dancer from the Balanchine--by way of Arthur Mitchell--aesthetic. More surprisingly, Young, who replaced Christopher D'Amboise, who replaced Feld as Robbins' replacement, shows less of his Twyla Tharp or MTV background and more of a cool Balanchinian sense of form in the dream ballet.

The show is more unassuming than overwhelming and less important than Wolfe's major work. Still, if 42nd Street hookers and East Village bohemians can be used for theme-park musicals, a big-city Valentine that sings "New York, New York, it's a visitors' place" seems a--to quote the word the 1949 movie couldn't say--helluva pleasant travel destination.

* Gershwin Theatre, 51st Street, west of Broadway, New York. Revival with music by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, directed by George C. Wolfe, choreographed by Keith Young. Sets by Adrianne Lobel, costumes by Paul Tazewell, lights by Paul Gallo, music direction by Kevin Stites.

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