Review: “On the Town”

RECOMMENDED

Where: The Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire
When: through Oct. 12
Tickets: $40-$48
Phone: 847-634-0200

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

If you’re familiar with “On the Town,” it’s probably because you’ve seen the 1949 MGM movie about a trio of World War II sailors’ day off in New York City starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.

The 1944 Broadway original with music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green seldom is staged, perhaps because the musical, based on Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’ ballet “Fancy Free,” featured an ensemble of 45, including a dedicated dance corps in addition to the actor/singers. In fact, The Marriott Theatre’s production is the first-ever major one in Chicago, at least according to the theater’s press materials. Like the upcoming Broadway revival in October, it may be sparked by the show’s 70th anniversary.

Regardless of the reason, being able to enjoy this classic is a boon. Just forget anything you remember from the film, which misguidedly ditched many of Bernstein’s wonderful songs. And don’t expect the 10-person orchestra under conductor Patti Garwood to give his score its full due or the 20-some actor/singer/dancers to recreate Robbins’ choreography. In addition, Marriott’s theater in-the-square has drawbacks, not the least of which is that, no matter where you sit, you’re bound to be looking at the performers’ backs some of the time.

That being said, director David H. Bell, choreographer Alex Sanchez, the cast and the design team have done a fine job of crafting an entertaining evening. Instead of shooting for any semblance of reality, which would have worked for the wartime premiere, they’ve wholeheartedly embraced the cartoonish fantasyland of the characters and setting and simply let the bittersweet elements, such as the finale, with the touching song “Some Other Time,” attempt to speak for themselves.

They also haven’t tried to disguise the fact that “On The Town” is essentially a plotless series of set pieces, most of them involving ballet or other dance. Each of the sailors has adventures: Chip with a taxi driver, Ozzie at the Museum of Natural History, Gabey searching for his dream girl, June’s Miss Turnstiles, at Carnegie Hall. Sanchez fills the space between them with even more choreography, mainly people rushing back and forth across the stage to mimic the hustle and bustle of the city.

Although a few of the songs aren’t the best versions I’ve heard, the biggies — ”New York, New York,” “Lucky to Be Me,” “Lonely Town” — come across well. And the broad comedy of such numbers as “Come Up to My Place,” “Carried Away” and “I Understand” carries the audience along, or did on opening night.

Most of all, Bell and Sanchez have found leading players who can sing, dance and act, starting with the three seamen. Max Clayton, making his Marriott debut (as are several others), brings a sweet shyness and slight sadness to the role of Gabey, the war hero the other two want to help because he saved their lives. This contrasts nicely with the hyperactive brashness of Jeff Smith’s Ozzie, who’s eager to pick up a dame and have some fun, and the single-minded determination of Seth Danner’s guidebook-toting Chip, who wants to see all the New York sites his father told him about in one day.

When the three split up ostensibly to search for Gabey’s dream girl, Chip is quickly sidetracked by the aggressive Hildy Esterhazy (Marya Grandy; if you saw “Juno” at TimeLine, you won’t believe it’s the same actress), who brazenly tries to seduce him even after being interrupted by her sneezing, sniffling roommate Lucy Schmeeler (Brandi Wooten, hilarious with a hankerchief). Ozzie meets his match in Claire DeLoone (Johanna McKenzie Miller), an anthropologist who wants to take this “specimen’s” measurements and more, precipitating a romp around the museum showcasing some very funny cavemen, not to mention the escalating distress of her fiance, Pitkin W. Bridgework (Alex Goodrich), whose repeated refrain, “I Understand,” is tested to the limits and beyond. As Miss Turnstiles, Ivy Smith, Alison Jantzie conveys a combination of insecurity and girl-next-door goodness that lives up to Gabey’s mental image, even if she does work as a hooch dancer. The couple’s would-be nemesis is her bohemian singing teacher, Madame Maude P. Dilly, played to the hilt by Barbara Robertson.

After the setups of the first act, the characters all come together in the second for scenes in a few clubs and then at Coney Island, before the sailors have to return to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and their ship. The director capitalizes on the recurring nature of the scenarios for some great comic moments, wrapping up these sailors’ 24 hours on a melancholy note before ending where they began.

Marriott’s stage doesn’t lend itself to elaborate sets, but scenic designer Thomas M. Ryan cannily uses the whole theater to simulate the subway and other effects, as well as a central turntable that adds to the aura of a city in continual motion. Jesse Klug’s lighting design turns city lights into a technicolor semi-hallucination, and Nancy Missimi’s costumes capture the period and make it brighter. Robert E. Gilmartin’s sound design could be better, but at least it’s not awful.

All in all, I was glad I made the trip out to Marriott to see “On the Town,” and that’s saying a lot.