Monday, December 29, 2014

"On The Town"

I used to get into all kinds of trouble with the theatre reviews on my website, back in the 1990’s, before the hideous word “blog” had even been invented.

I miss all that.  It was fun.  Let me roll up my sleeves and get into some trouble again.


There is a school of revivals in which the perpetrators do something to the show – rather than that antiquated concept called: Doing The Show.

I love ON THE TOWN.  My first exposure was the 1971 revival, with a bunch of pros named Phyllis Newman, Bernadette Peters, Marilyn Cooper, and Kurt Peterson, directed and choreographed by Ron Field, only five years after his triumphant greatest success, CABARET (which people forget he choreographed long before Bob Fosse adapted it.)  I turned thirteen the night my parents took me, so I’ll defer to some older experts who say that the 1971 production wasn’t all that; but I loved it – and it was ON THE TOWN, straight up, no cherry.

The second revival was an atrocity and richly deserved its ignominious fate.  First of all, the geniuses decided to re-orchestrate the shattering score for a run-of-the-mill big band.  Now I love big band more than just about anything, but the dimwitted thinking (“It’s WWII 1944, let’s do big band!”) was an idiotic, utterly tone-deaf mishearing of that rich, largely symphonic score, young Leonard Bernstein’s little warm-up for WEST SIDE STORY (some of which it resembles) thirteen years later.  The cast was barely memorable between one scene and the next, there wasn’t a laugh to be had from curtain up to curtain down, and the questionable Lea DeLaria’s aggressive, acting-free mangling of Hildy, and her “I Can Cook Too” song, is still referenced in any discussion of ON THE TOWN past and present.

So maybe third time’s the charm?

But how can you do a successful production ON THE TOWN if you don’t really admire or appreciate it to begin with?

Here’s how I know the current people don’t, and it’s sad, since there are so many positive assets on board.

You can just hear the chatter at the production meeting.  “This will be New York City seen through the eyes of bumpkins.”  So the set is a fantasy New York depicted by a shimmering, garish, plexiglass-and-projection contraption colored like a pack of Starburst candies.  I loved it for a while; the last time I saw terrific dancing reflected from behind in plexiglass was the original CHICAGO in 1975.  It’s a stunning effect.  But as ON THE TOWN wore on, I began to weary of Fake Exaggerated Cartoon New York.

Fake Exaggerated Cartoon is the modus operandi of the production – it’s big and bright and blue and red and dazzling, but it ain’t New York.  And ON THE TOWN is about New York – not a fake one; the real one. And this is important for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that the centerpiece fantasy ballet of Act Two takes place in a fantasy version New York (“Coney Island, Playground Of The Rich,” in Gabey-the-sailor’s mind.)  We lose a lot if the whole show already takes place in an exaggerated fantasy.

And Fake Exaggerated Cartoon is clearly the approach taken by the misguided director and most of his unfortunate cast, with some notable exceptions listed below.  See above, vis-a-vis YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, and nailing the fine line between madcap and heart. The former without the latter is superfluous.  The dead giveaway is the ubiquitous presence of Jackie Hoffman, whom consensus (if not the audience) has anointed New York’s perennial cut-up. Is a broad Jewish comic appropriate for Madame Dilly, opera-diva, dubious alcoholic grande dame, dispensing strict vocal training and imposing moral (and financial) ethics on her unfortunate student? This part is not just for laughs – she’s the critical fulcrum of the romantic plot of the show. I know the Broadway insiders think Hoffman is the funniest woman who ever lived, but I prefer Comden & Green’s satire on the Madame Dillys of this world (one of their classic creations – remember “Round tones, Miss Lamont?”) to Hoffman’s insane, anything-for-a-laugh-every-three-seconds drunk shit, which occupied twice the stage time of any Madame Dilly I’ve previously seen, to no added effect and some imbalance, over-dominating the two young lovers’ precious little stage time together.  Hoffman is likewise inappropriate casting for the nightclub torch singer (twice) – unless the goal is to burlesque what is already a satire.

I tremendously admire and admired Elizabeth Stanley, one of the great underutilized talents of our age. She sings better than just about anybody, looks like a million, and she’s a wonderful actress. For these reasons, I regretted the decision to turn her Claire DeLune pretty quickly into a burlesque comic, with all kinds of vocal exaggerations and lowdown deliveries; under a different production team, she could have been stellar. Picture Betty Comden originating that role; hers was a refined, urbane comedy, and didn’t need lowbrow shtick to draw her characters, already written with a keen eye and ear for classic Comden & Green satire without burlesque on top like chocolate sauce on chocolate. 

That’s really the point here; I don’t believe Comden & Green need the help; this production team does.

I admired Alysha Umphress’s direct, unadorned reading of Hildy, the taxi-driver, although we can vividly imagine the added dash of urgent comedy Nancy Walker probably featured, since she sold that commodity her whole career. But when “I Can Cook Too” reared its ugly head, the hackles rose for both my guest and me (ardent musical theatre and Bernstein fans spanning countless decades) – and our hostility spread like a virus all over the evening.  What is it about this song that so utterly defeats condescending revivalists, same as in the previous revival with the inappropriate Lea DeLaria? Listen, people.  Use your heads and your ears.  It’s a largely symphonic score depicting both Big City and a forlorn romantic tale (that’s the show in a nutshell, plain and simple.) Then along comes this nymphomaniac picking up a nerdy, dopey sailor.  Bernstein wrote a surprise swing jazz number, and Comden & Green wrote a double-entendre lyric. The writers did the job, kids.  Just sing the fucking song.  It’s ALREADY jazz, it’s ALREADY hot, it’s ALREADY dirty. Turning this undersexed, eager comic broad into some kind of Harlem sophisticated Ella Fitzgerald scatting nightclub performer is completely unnecessary, and an extremely unwelcome intrusion; it’s not in period, not Bernstein, not Comden & Green, not the character, not the show. Stop it and stop it now and sing the fucking song and let us hear what they wrote and let us react as they wanted us to react. Do your club act at 54 Below and I’ll buy the first ticket. Do it in the middle of ON THE TOWN and I’ll recommend no one buy a ticket.

Before I get to the good stuff, one more little bone to pick.

Phillip Boykin is one of the finest voices and performers in New York City, as anyone who saw PORGY AND BESS can attest. He does ON THE TOWN a heroic favor right off the bat with his electrifyingly terrific rendition of the first strains of the show, “I Feel Like I’m Not Out Of Bed Yet” (a sure sign in the writing that the show’s creators had something better in mind than just some screwball evening.)  Between this outstanding performance, and the beautiful Brooklyn Navy Yard set, and the full orchestra in the pit, I started the night on a huge high and all kinds of optimistic.

Imagine my shock when the very same performer came out as the Announcer for the Miss Turnstiles Ballet, playing this role as the most effeminate, jokey-sissy-faggotty-faggot stereotypical mincing queen you ever saw on any Broadway stage.

What in the world were these people thinking? In what world of either 2014 or 1944 would this ever be considered an acceptable portrayal or interpretation, and to what purpose and effect on audiences of either era? There is no plot point at issue (this is not THE BIRD CAGE or LA CAGE); this is a completely gratuitous, leering, limp-wristed guffaw-at-how-homosexual-he-is stereotype for cheap laughs (there were no laughs). It makes no sense for this formerly august, authoritative announcer to be a fucking airborne queen, and this kind of gratuitous homo bullshit is fucking offensive – so my hostility was aroused even before the scatting started. And a minority actor performing this travesty at that! I wonder how it would go over if a gay actor was asked to portray the Announcer as a knuckle-dragging Stepin Fetchit. Shocked at my language?  Unclutch those pearls, ladies; I hope you deplore gratuitous, dated, demeaning, cheap, lowest-common-denominator stereotypes as much as I do, and there isn’t one more acceptable than the other.  And that ain’t all; throughout the evening we also had two chorus boys mincing about in ascots and pencil-mustaches, kissing each other, doing a homosexual burlesque of the Flossie-“And-Then-I-Says-To-Him” dialogue, making goo-goo eyes and carrying on, cardboard-stereotype-style. To what end? Other than to earn my disrespect for the production, no doubt to say to the audience: “Look how hip we were at the production meeting, where we decided to jive-ass and hip up ON THE TOWN with all kinds of gay shit and have the principals take off clothes and have sex and stuff, and sing Happy Birthday to audience members in the middle of the show, because the original would be a bore!”

I don’t think ON THE TOWN is a bore and I wish the current team didn’t either.

Hats off to the magnificent Tony Yazbeck, finally getting the chance of a lifetime and his long (young) career, delivering a 100% terrific performance as Gabey, the leading man. I don’t know how he managed to escape whatever cheap stuff he might have been given to do, but he holds 100% to the role and the real show, delivers his songs beautifully, dances like a dream, and stays true acting-wise to the essential romance of the piece – and ON THE TOWN is fundamentally a bittersweet romance (as most people could tell by listening to what Bernstein wrote.) 

Qualified hats off to the gorgeous Jay Armstrong Johnson, cutest guy in New York, who treads perilously close to the notorious line of “Is It Real Or Is It Camp,” tipping over the line a few times, but basically holding it together; a more secure director who liked the piece would have really enabled him to be 100% Chip and nothing but, and less of a jazz-dancing, acrobatic car-jumping, jive enthusiast of Scat Hildy, and maintaining that tour-guidebook-touting simpleton role throughout, growing into the romantic complication – but quibbles aside, he’s something to see (as he was in SWEENEY TODD at Avery Fisher and MOST HAPPY FELLA at Encores.)

Clyde Alves is a stalwart, disdaining the gratuitously goofy in favor of a real guy, and real guys are most welcome in this production (although his admirable straightforwardness does make Elizabeth Stanley’s burlesques seem even more unnecessary than they already are.)

And kudos to Allison Guinn, funny as the saftig reject from the outrageously homosexualized Miss Turnstiles contest, and witty likewise as Lucy Schmeeler – although no one but Marilyn Cooper in 1971 could have gotten the biggest laugh I’ve ever heard in any theatre on a three-word line: “I’m – going – out.”

Joshua Bergasse’s choreography is miles higher than the industry standard today, reminiscent of Jerome Robbins and largely illustrative of story if not always reflective of music. His Pas de Deux for Gabey and Ivy in “Imaginary Coney Island” is the greatest dance on Broadway today, with a striking lighting change borrowed (effectively) from the identical drastic shift in Robbins’ “Somewhere” ballet in WEST SIDE STORY.

And speaking of WEST SIDE STORY, there’s ON THE TOWN’s full orchestra, which unfortunately is now a news headline in those few shows that furnish top-dollar-paying audiences with what used to be a reasonable and unremarkable expectation.  Like the SOUTH PACIFIC revival, if the ferocity and vivacity in the playing of the score is mysteriously a notch or two below the readily-available earlier Broadway renditions preserved for us by Columbia Records, we can still be hugely grateful for the opportunity to hear the score played full-out in the original orchestration.  How I wish the production had as much faith in every element of the actual real show as they did in its orchestration. 

© 2014 Fred Barton

1 comment:

  1. Oh, crap. I thought this was supposed to be a decent revival. I heard Debbie Gravitte Shapiro sing, "I can cook, too" in Jerome Robbins Broadway, and liked it, maybe we were all better off watching Frank Sinatra's padded bottom in the film version. The mincing you describe is actually anti-gay. Not funny.