On the Town
Book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Leonard Bernstein
Regent's Park Theatre
Regent's Park Open Air Theatre
A black woman shipyard worker, still sleepy, sits atop a huge metal container in the Brooklyn dockyards at three minutes to six in the morning on a warm June day in 1944. Moments later, the stage is a bright, busy, entertaining dance sequence.
This is how the director and choreographer Drew McOnie opens his stunning production of the musical comedy On The Town.
Its exuberant, youthful radicalism springs from a world at war and the political convulsions of the 1930s. The composer Bernstein had already produced a student version of A Cradle Will Rock about the national steel workers strike. The book and lyrics were written by Comden and Green who had been performing satiric sketches at the jazz and blues nightclub The Village Vanguard.
They knew the world was changing and reflect this in a fantastic dreamlike musical.
The story is about three sailors, Chip, (Jacob Maynard) Ozzie (Samuel Edwards) and Gabey (Danny Mac), on shore leave for twenty-four hours in New York where the changes to the city mean that Chip’s guidebook is out of date.
What is distinctive about this new world is the way three women characters take the lead and shape the story. They are intelligent, quick witted, and funny. They know what they want and are engagingly confident about how to get it.
There is the cab driver Hildy (Lizzie Connolly) who turns down the advances of various men before taking a fancy to Chip who wants to see sights such as the 5,000-seater Hippodrome.
Telling him she is “young, free and highly obtainable”, she explains during their comic jazz blues duet “Come Up To My Place” that “I may not have 5,000 seats but the one I have is a honey. Come up to my place.”
Ozzie arrives by mistake at the Museum of Natural History where he meets the anthropologist Claire de Loone, (Miriam-Teak Lee) a name meant to be a satiric swipe at Clare Boothe Luce, a key speaker at that year’s Republican National Convention.
Taking a shine to Ozzie, the character Claire says she is writing a book “Modern Man. What is it?”. Her answer to the question of the title is, “just a collection of complexes and erotic impulses that occasionally break through.”
Gabey wants to meet someone like his childhood sweetheart but at Carnegie Hall he instead meets Ivy Smith (Siena Kelly) who has just won the subway train contest to become Miss Turnstile for June.
The three women take Ozzie, Gabey and Chip through the night city. They are pursued by cartoon figures of authority such as the police, an employer and a judge.
The set imaginatively mutates from dockyard to subway train to night club. The cast is strong, the choreography impressive, the jazz balletic sequences exciting.
This boldly confident production never misses a step even when it shifts from bright optimism to something very different. There is the haunting section that includes the song “Lonely Town”, and the sequence in which a young male sailor has a fleeting sexual encounter with another male.
Towards the end of the show in what might be the dream of a sailor sleeping on a subway train, there is a sudden balletic nightmare of war carnage as all the sailors are killed. But it is followed by a more hopeful ending.
This is great musical satire that will leave you humming the song “New York New York” and remembering many striking moments from a very enjoyable evening in Regent’s Park Theatre.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna