On the Town

Leonard Bernstein, book by Betty Comden and Adolphe Green
English National Opera

Publicity photo

Seated around a dining table in a South Dakota sitting room, we listened attentively to our host, a sage American drama teacher who issued a kindly warning. "Please don’t talk to people you meet here about the excitement of your visit to New York – because very few people in this state have ever seen New York!"

Advice which for me lends a special piquancy to the current revival of Jude Kelly’s spectacular production for English National Opera of On The Town. In 1944, when this work first appeared, few of the US naval fleet had ever seen the Big Apple. Small wonder their excited opening number ”a helluva town”.

We almost forget these were days when the boys over here, and our own men, were struggling over the beaches of Normandy – many never to be seen again – and the Navy were threading themselves around Pacific islands dominated by the Japanese.

For those who need reminding, designer Robert Jones’ settings open with a reminder of the grim facts of ships at war, before we emerge into the bright lights and early morning activity of Brooklyn Naval Yard as three Sailors, Gabbie (Joshua Dallas) Ozzie (Ryan Molloy) and Chip (Sean Palmer) arrive at the start of their 24 hours shore leave, their first sight of New York – and how brilliantly they let us know about it!

The famous opening number leads into the first of a wonderful chain of spectacular dance sequences, all brillantly choreographed by Stephen Mear assisted by Nikki Woollason, that give the show its very special pazazz.

The singing, too, is quite what we expect from the operatic reaches of The Coliseum, but then, why wouldn’t it be with a score by Bernstein?

Two outstanding players, Caroline O’Connor and Lucy Shaufer, the former a great soubrette winner of awards for her Judy Garland performances in Sydney and Edinburgh, and the latter a superb mezzo who sang at Bernstein’s 70th birthday party, vie with each other as Hildy the taxi driver and Claire the sex-mad anthropologist. Honours in the end are shared – but what fun we have deciding!

Miss O’Connor appears in a fantastic yellow (of course) skeletal taxi which she manoeuvres around the stage with remarkable facility while MissSchaufer performs her vocal gymnastics in front of the other star skeleton, giant dinosour – and guess what happens to that

Two of the shows great numbers come from these ladies, I Can Cook, too (Hildy), and I get Carried Away (Claire).

Ivy Smith, the cooch dancer who is the object of the sailors’ tour of the town and, therefore, the reason we are all glued to the show, could so easily be sung off the stage – were it not for her magical movement.

Indeed, On the Town hasn’t really a plot worth talking, let alone singing about. What it has is some of the finest show dance music of all time; in other words, the genius of Bernstein. Place it under the baton of Simon Lee and you expect the advance sales for Kismet at the Coliseum to break records.

Weave it all into a series of comic situations, flavoured with virtuosi performances from the likes of baritone Andrew Shore (Pitkin) and the ubiquitous star of a thousand and one radio and TV nights, June Whitfield (Madam Dilly,) and you have a spectacle that could fill the house for a season.

Which prompts the question: where has On the Town been ever since it first appeared in 1944?

The production will be repeated at The Coliseum on April 27th ,28th (2.30 and 7.30), Thurs and Fri May 3rd and 4th, Sat 5th (2.30 and 7.30), Fri 11th, Sat 12th (2.30 and 7.30), Thurs 17th, Fri 18th, Sat 19th (2.30 and 7.30), Tues 22nd, Wed 23rd

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole

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