UPDATE, FRIDAY AM with more photos and casting in Love Letters: The ants-in-their-pants revival of On The Town that snap, crackle and popped open on Thursday night is so unabashedly old-fashioned it could seduce a Red State senator. And yet it’s also so subversively fresh you may find yourself wondering when Broadway musicals got so stuffy, and so damned unmusical in the 70 years since the show opened in wartime New York, New York. That’s a helluva feat for a show long ago relegated like a battleship to mothballs and that humbled even the gifted director George C. Wolfe in its most recent revival till now.
Here’s a show that practically defined high concept and introduced a quartet of geniuses into the musical theater canon. Choreographer Jerome Robbins set the scene: Three sailors on 24-hour shore leave hit Manhattan in search of, you know, dates. Composer Leonard Bernstein built a score feverish with New York energy: jazz, blues, some Copland here, some Gershwin there, but in the end sui generis. Fancy Free, the resulting piece for Robbins’s New York City Ballet, would have been dayenu (you can see the American Ballet Theatre perform it next week at Lincoln Center).
But then Robbins and Bernstein brought in Betty Comden and Adolph Green, a team of mischief-loving book writer/lyricists, to flesh the whole thing out, and there it was: The dance-driven musical comedy that introduced the original “New York, New York” anthem along with such gorgeous ballads as “Lonely Town,” “Lucky To Be Me” and “Some Other Time,” and the comic gems “Carried Away” and “I Can Cook Too.” It starts at dawn by the Brooklyn Navy Yard, spins uptown to Times Square and the Natural History museum, alights in Greenwich Village and Coney Island before settling back down in Brooklyn at the break of another day. Simple.
Director John Rando brings the audience full face with a giant 48-star flag and the “Star-Spangled Banner” as an overture. Funny, how awkward that makes us sophisticates feel. Soon the stage of the barnlike Lyric Theatre (formerly the Foxwoods, formerly the Ford Center For The Performing Arts and most recently home to the very-high-risk Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark) is a Busby Berkeley bee’s nest of activity. Propelled by a lush 28-piece orchestra (will all of them still be there two weeks after opening night?), the long-stemmed company of dancers are enchantingly engaged with the Robbins-evoking dances by Joshua Bergasse (Smash).
Rando, who first staged the show last summer at the Barrington Stage in Massachusetts, sets the hormones in high gear for the six principals: Tony Yazbeck’s gangly, moony Gabey, who’s gaga for the poster image of Miss Turnstiles, Ivy (City Ballet principal dancer Megan Fairchild, divine); unsuccessfully resistant Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson), who falls prey to the man-hungry cabbie Hildy (Alysha Umphress); and game Ozzie (Clyde Alves), who severely hots up anthropologist Claire de Loon.
There’s not much room for subtlety in the production. Comic actress Jackie Hoffman is panderingly overused in several roles, one more tiresome than the last. Beowolf Borritt’s cheesy Day-Glo sets glow in Jason Lyons’ frequently garish lighting. But Jess Goldstein’s outfits are sexy and show off the men and women with equal elan. And really, there is nothing like submitting to the charms of a score that bristles with inventiveness, ingenuity and fun. On The Town is pretty dreamy.
There’s nostalgia of a different sort for delectation at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters has entered phase two in its star-studded engagement. The 90-minute two-hander offers no more than a man and woman sitting at a table, reading aloud their correspondence over the decades from skittish childhood through testy adolescence, various marriages and affairs including their own, and old age. Also simple, but not so. Carol Burnett has now replaced Mia Farrow as Melissa Gardner opposite Brian Dennehy’s Andrew Makepeace Ladd III.
They play as if born to bounce off one another, as Gurney’s correspondents do. Burnett fixes her stare in the distance with spirited wide-eyed wonder that slowly, heartbreakingly dissolves into despair and, ultimately, defeat. Dennehy, who smiles as much with his eyes as with his mouth, is tender and stern as the boy who got away, then didn’t, then did. The deceptively detailed performance, under the sure hand of director Gregory Mosher, is sometimes more conversational than epistolary. That only made me want to return for future pairings in the coming months to see the Melissas and Andrews of Alan Alda & Candice Bergen, Stacy Keach & Diana Rigg, and Angelica Huston & Martin Sheen.