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BWW Reviews: It's one Helluva ON THE TOWN at Barrington Stage

Tuneful musicals have long been one of the hallmarks of Barrington Stage Company, and this glorious ON THE TOWN is their most successful production to date. It sets a new and higher standard for the Berkshires. This feel-good 1944 work is not often seen on stages anymore because it is a big production, the original show had 56 people in the cast, and many of them played multiple roles. But this is no musical to put on the shelf, For one thing the Leonard Bernstein score is a treasure, and needs no reworking. And it is a rare treat to hear it as he wrote it, vibrant, alive and masterful.

Working with the maestro, Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the book and lyrics. That was a very long seven decades ago, so rebirthing this treasure might be a task comparable to updating a 70-year old gent who is out of touch with today's reality. But with the best creative team the Berkshires has ever seen, a superb cast of triple-threat actors and a pit orchestra to beat the band, there was a successful transformation. Like they used to say, "shave and a haircut, two bits, " and before you know it careful cutting, pruning and polishing transforms this septuagenarian into a dandy musical that loses none of its period charm, but wins you over with its wit, its energy and above all, it's dancing.

When you enter the theatre the stage is virtually bare, only a giant 48-star World War II era American flag hangs over it. As the house lights dim, director John Rando makes the first of many sensational choices and instead of an overture, the audience hears the orchestra play "The Star Spangled Banner," which brings everyone to their feet as they sing - rather beautifully - the National Anthem, followed by the first enthusiastic applause of the evening.

Opening the show, three workmen sing "I feel like I am not out of bed yet," as the clock ticks toward 6 am and we know instantly from the range of the singer that this is no ordinary musical, but one written by someone who trusts that his audience is sophisticated enough to enjoy the classical flourishes and jazz elements he has incorporated into the songs and dances.You probably know this already, but it bears repeating. ON THE TOWN started as a (gasp!) ballet called Fancy Free. The musical was taken from that, based on the original ideas of choreographer Jerome Robbins, with Comden and Green filling out the story. Some of the script is dated, but ON THE TOWN is blessed with a simple and solid storyline.

Three sailors set out to discover New York City on their first visit. Our swabbies have just 24 hours of liberty before being shipped overseas. The war is on and their future consists of a perilous adventure from which they might not return. In town for a few hours, they try to make the most of it. Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) tries to plan out their day so as to include all the great sights, but Gabey (Tony Yazbeck) falls for Ivy Smith (Deanna Doyle) via a poster image of her as Miss Turnstiles. The three gobs agree to search for her so that lonely Tony can meet her. Along the way Chip meets Hildy (Alysha Umphress) and Ozzie (Clyde Alves) his Claire De Loone (Elizabeth Stanley). There are a whole flock of other amazing characters, but let's leave all of them and their hilarious roles in this adventure musical as something to discover for yourself.

If it is the genius of John Rando whose snipping and updating of the comedic elements brought this musical up to date, it has to be the amazing choreography and gymnastics of Joshua Bergasse who upped the ante and restores the dancing to the focal point of this show. It is breathtaking to see.

Once Broadway musicals supplemented their actors with separate corps of singers and dancers which is why the original needed more than four dozen players to carry out the complex song and dance numbers in the show. If the music is vocally demanding, even more so is the dancing which is an amalgam of show, jazz and novelty dancing, and out and out ballet replete with lifts, arabesques and altitude. It is clear that Bergasse demanded a lot from his actors and singers, and they delivered handsomely, especially the three sailors, Gabey, Chip and Ozzie. They danced as well as they sang. And they acted as well as they danced. When Alicaia Umphress and Jay Armstrong Johnson sing "Come Up to My Place" the audience roared with delight and laughter at the antics taking place, while the mood shifts when Tony Yazbeck sangs "Lonely Town." For that the audience hushed down and began looking for their kleenex. Another hanky moment cames towards the end of the second act when Claire, Hildy, Ozzy and Chip sing "Some Other Time," a gorgeous and moving quartet that demands a lot from its singers.

Usually in musicals, women are portrayed as secondary characters or strictly as a love interest, but in ON THE TOWN, set as it is in the war years, you will find the strongest three-dimensional women ever seen in a musical to that point. As you know, with the war all the usual niceties of traditional roles were dropped and mom and sis assumed roles as Rosie the Riveter and Hildy the Taxi Driver. Of course some old-school types tsk tsk-ed the whole paradigm shift and continued their roles as scolds and busy-bodies. Karen Hyland mines the Little Old Lady for laughs as does Nancy Opel as the sloshed Madame Maude P. Dilly. Equally notable is the subdued humor of Michael Rupert as Judge Pitkin who delivered a masterful "I Understand."

Originally the three sailors had doubles to perform their more complicated dance sequences, but in a stroke of casting genius (and budgetary brilliance) all three of the navy guys were fleet on their feet and danced their parts from beginning to end. In the "Lonely Town" pas de deux it is Hannah Florence and Michael Scirrotto who add the final touch of lyricism to Gabey's solo.

The costumes also helped make the show sparkle, and they are the work of Jennifer Caprio who sure knows how to dazzle the eye. Ex Navy men like myself know that the stage sailors would never pass inspection, but everything is so close to perfect why worry when there are no petty officers around.

The scenic elements were deceptively simple, but ever so clever. Set Designer Beowulf Boritt is a bit of a minimalist anyway, so he was the perfect fit for this show where the stage itself must never be cluttered with set pieces, every square foot is needed for the dancing to reach its full potential. A gorgeous and movable backdrop of the city, a simple scrim, and other pared down elements were enough to make this feel like a million dollar musical. The cast gets a real workout at each performance since John Rando's all-points staging keeps them on the move. At times it brought characters onto the lip of the stage, and even into the audience as the story unfolded. The sound was the best I have ever heard from Barrington Stage - Ed Chapman did the complex sound design. It had absolutely the best subway rumbles ever heard in a theatre anywhere on earth. Never ever mentioned in a review are the unsung heroes who operate the sound boards so here's a nod to you, and to lighting designer Jason Lyons who never let us down. And yes, we saw those new LED instruments, they worked really well especially in the nightclub scenes where the follow spot operator proved he or she was really on the ball.

The two hour show passes in a twinkle of the eye, and despite the limited rehearsal times in the Berkshires, is amazingly polished. Even though there are no plans to continue the show after it closes in a month, this is a totally Broadway-ready musical. Wish it was possible to transfer to one of the medium sized Broadway houses where a dozen musicians in the pit is acceptable. Speaking of the music, Darren R.Cohen has picked his pit instrumentalists well, especially the strings that are so essential to the period, topnotch brass, reeds, percussion and keyboards. The sound does credit to the complex Bernstein score.

There are three good reasons to see this musical. First, this production honors Leonard Bernstein by playing all the music in his score, unlike the film which only used three songs. The score is so well crafted that you are guaranteed to carry the melodies in your ear for days afterwards.

Then there are the totally unpredictible nutso-dipso comic moments that will have you howling from beginning to end.

But in the end, it is simply, the fabulous dancing. With all these elements well done, ON THE TOWN captures the eye, lifts the spirit and fills the heart. Until last night I didn't realize how much I missed an evening of theatre that is once both optimistic and upbeat. It's worth a special trip to the Berkshires to see this most beloved of American musicals. Folks, it doesn't show its age. It's updated, renewed, and performed to perfection.

Barrington Stage Company presents ON THE TOWN, Music by Leonard Bernstein, Book & Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Based on an idea by Jerome Robbins, Scenic Designer-Beowulf Boritt; Costume Designer-Jennifer Caprio; Lighting Designer-Jason Lyons; Sound Designer-Ed Chapman; Wig Designers-Rob Greene & J. Jared Janas; Director of Production-Jeff Roudabush; Casting-Pat McCorkle, CSA; Production Stage Manager-Renee Lutz; Press Representative-Charlie Siedenburg; Musical Direction by Darren R. Cohen; Choreography by Joshua Bergasse; Directed by John Rando. Cast: Workmen: Christopher Job, Michael Scirrotto, Harris Milgrim, Ozzie: Clive Alves, Chip/John Offenblock: Jay Armstrong Johnson, Gabey: Tony Yazbeck, Flossie: Kelly Sheehan, Flossie's Friend: Chloe Campbell, Bill Poster: Chip Abbott, Little Old Lady: Karen Hyland, Announcer: Gordon Stanley, Ivy Smith: Deanna Doyle, Hildy/Brunhilde Esterhazy: Alysha Umphress, S. Uperman: Christopher Job, Prof. Waldo Figment: Gordon Stanley, Schoolgirls: Jenifer Dillow, Elizabeth Flanagan, Chloe Tiso, Jane Bernhard; Claire De Loone: Elizabeth Stanley, Policeman: Harris Milgrim, Lonely Town Pas de Deux: Michael Scirrotto, Hannah Florence; Musicians: Kyle Scranton, Michael Kushner; Music Students: Megan Mekjian, Chloe Tiso; Madams Maude P. Dilly: Nancy Opel, Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework: Michael Rupert, Lucy Schmeeler: Allison Guinn, Nightclub MC: Harris Milgrim, Diane Dream/Dolores Dolores: Nancy Opel; Rajah Bimmey: Michael Scirrottto, Three Sailors: Chip Abbott, Jason Luks, Michael Scirrotto. June 12-July13, 2013. Two hours fifteen minutes including one intermission. At Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Stage, Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA 413-236-8888.

Photo: Kevin Sprague

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