Fort Worth — The original 1944 On the Town is a helluva musical.
If you’ve only seen the pleasant but toothless 1949 movie version (minus most of the great music and dance of the Broadway show), Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s ambitious production of the Real Deal will remind you how much we’ve been missing. As always with this scrappy company’s successful modest-budget, big-dreams musicals (Oklahoma!, Spamalot) there are limits, but this is a tuneful and energetic show—very well directed by Lauren and Jason Morgan and with fine choreography from Karen Matheny. And the six-pack of lead characters (three sailors and three “gals” making the most of a one-day shore leave) provide fizz, laughs, heart…and some surprises, too.
For its 60th anniversary in 2014, On the Town got a bang-up new Broadway production. Chip (the Sinatra role in the film) was played by Fort Worth’s own Jay Armstrong Johnson, and a national tour reportedly was in the works. But somehow, it didn’t happen—and that’s another reason to welcome this homegrown revival of a too-rarely seen classic.
Who can understand Hollywood? Back in the day, the suits paid plenty for the rights to this hit show from New York’s hottest team (all of them in, or barely out of, their twenties at the time): composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins, lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. And then, come time to make the movie, Hollywood threw most of the score, and all but three of the original songs, right out the window.
But at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, it’s as if all that never happened.
For here’s Bernstein’s high/low alternating current of symphonic music and pop tunes, brassy notes and blue ones. Here’s a sense of just how dance-centric it was from the start; the idea, after all, was sparked by a short Bernstein-Robbins ballet called Fancy Free. It’s a joyful but more thoughtful show than we’re used to, and the stakes are higher. Written during the war (though the war is never mentioned), this On the Town has the time’s-a-flyin’ urgency of young men having a “last day” before putting their lives on the line. Even the girls they meet are wartime women: independent, take-charge types with plenty to say about the men they want in their lives.
Talented Jonah Munroe (a great Sky Masterson in Theatre Arlington’s recent Guys and Dolls) plays sailor Gabey—whose unexpected persona is one of the show’s surprises. As originally conceived, Gabey isn’t the brash, confident Gene Kelly type, but a quiet guy written in a minor key. Self-aware but shy, lonely and longing, he falls in love with a picture he sees in the subway, pinning all his hopes on “Miss Turnstiles”—if he can find her. Munroe hits the right notes: he has a sleepy-eyed appeal and a vintage way with a tune (think of a young Mel Tormé) that pulls us toward his signature ballads “Lonely Town” and “Lucky to Be Me.”
Gabey’s Miss Turnstiles is subway rider Ivy Smith, played beautifully by Texas Ballet Theater alum Madelyn Grimes with a comically sweet mix of girlishness and side-eye sass. We know in a New York minute they’re perfect for each other, if the big city would just stop pulling them apart. And Grimes’ dancing is gorgeous—one of the night’s chief pleasures, in fact—as she embodies both Gabey’s dream of love and the very real working girl he meets, loses, and desperately tries to find again. Their dance pairing in the dream ballet “Imaginary Coney Island” smolders.
Flanking them are not just one but two of the traditional “comic couples” of musical theater—an intentional overload of goofiness from the pens of Comden and Green. Muscle-boy Ozzie (Dakota James) meets man-crazy anthropologist Claire DeLoone (Jessica Taylor) over some dinosaur bones in a museum. He looks like a throwback hunk to her (she calls him “Specimen”), and both being enthusiastic types, they quickly get “Carried Away.” Boyish Chip (Lance McDougall) is pulled into a Yellow Cab by driver Hildy Esterhazy (Olivia Cartwright), who insists he “Come Up to My Place” instead of seeing the sights. Chip doesn’t stand a chance—and doesn’t seem to mind. “I’m a pot of joy for a hungry boy…a dish you will wish you had took,” Hildy sings in the delightful swing number “I Can Cook Too.”
Delynda Johnson Moravec lurches her way through the evening as Ivy’s awful (but funny) vocal coach, Madame Dilly, who hits a high C about as often as she hits the bottle. Christian Teague’s low notes for Claire’s all-too “understanding” fiancé Judge Bridgework are a hoot (as is Bryan Douglas’ noir lighting for him), and Preston Isham is a walking Cheshire Cat grin as an over-the-top Miss Turnstiles announcer. The whole cast, in fact, is a treat to watch, as they’re run through multiple smaller roles (and lots of challenging dance moves!) as New York crowds, cops, scientists, sailors, night club singers, sneezing roommates, irate old ladies and cab company honchos.
At times, it seems as if all of them are chasing after the sailors and their girls.
Jason Morgan’s set design is a cute blackboard-doodle New York (Michael Kreitzinger did the scenic paintwork) with flashing signs and quick-change elements that turn into Brooklyn wharves, subway cars, Carnegie Hall, Coney Island, and a string of nightclubs. Lauren Morgan’s costumes—notably some short rompers for Ivy and the Carnegie Hall dancers, and Ivy’s shining emerald-green dance dress—earn plenty of ‘40s style points. And as the show’s music director, Ms. Morgan pulls some fine singing from ensemble and stars alike. The girl-group harmonies of “Carnegie Hall Pavane” will make you think of the Andrews Sisters.
Who ends up with who—or whom? By the end of On the Town, life is moving so fast it’s hard to be sure. And off the ship come another trio of sailors, ready for their Big Day in the city.
Twenty-four hours can go so fast,
You look around, the day has passed.
When you're in love,
Time is precious stuff;
Even a lifetime isn't enough.