BWW Review: Starmaking Performances Lead Belmont University's Exhilarating ON THE TOWN

BWW Review: Starmaking Performances Lead Belmont University's Exhilarating ON THE TOWN
Quintan Craig in Belmont University Musical Theatre's
On The Town

There's really nothing better than a musical theater-inspired epiphany: On opening night of Belmont University Musical Theatre's altogether invigorating and exhilarating On The Town (which plays Belmont's Troutt Theatre through this Sunday, March 25) I was struck by the similarities - both structurally and musically - to the Gershwin masterpiece An American in Paris. Both shows are set in the mid-1940s, in a world irrevocably changed by the events of World War II, with soaring, captivating scores that immediately became classics of both the American theater and film worlds. Their two plotlines feature charming characters seeking to find their way in an ever-changing world, with humor and good-natured appeal to boost their theatrical bona fides.

And boosting theatrical bona fides is exactly what director David Shamburger's young stars do with their startling performances in BUMT's engaging production of the musical - with a score by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (that Monday was the birthday of Green's wife Phyllis Newman seems more serendipitous than coincidental as I reflect on the show) - that features an amazing amalgam of multi-talented performers who define the term "triple threat" and who prove, once again, that the musical theatre program at the Nashville university continues to thrive, with each subsequent production somehow surpassing the towering achievements that precede them.

BWW Review: Starmaking Performances Lead Belmont University's Exhilarating ON THE TOWNWith On The Town, which is ultimately a love letter to New York City and everything it represents (is there any more evocative song than "New York, New York" in the musical theatre canon?), BUMT again proves its mettle, showing off its talented students with style and panache.

BUMT senior Quintan Craig, who leads the company's two casts in the central role of Gabey (a heroic sailor celebrating a 24-hour shore leave in New York City with his pals Ozzie and Chip - played on opening night by Bobby Hogan and Lucas Beckett), shows off his impressive arsenal of theatrical firepower, singing, dancing and acting with sharp focus and resolute conviction. Fairly dripping with charm and commanding the stage with his outsized presence, Craig provides the show's heart, winning over the audience from his first moments onstage and continuing to do so until the curtain call.

Craig is paired with the incandescent Jordan Anne Maurodis, cast as Miss Turnstiles Ivy Smith (the object of Gabey's adoring ardor), who dances, sings and acts her heart out in the process, proving herself the ideal partner to her leading man with a performance that is heartfelt and dazzling. Somehow, Maurodis gives a performance that is grandly, spectacularly cloaked in showbiz wizardly, yet remains sweetly evocative and intimate, proving the actress' own estimable skills.

Director Shamburger is once again joined on the creative team for On The Town by musical director Jo Lynn Burks (Is there a more electrifying conductor to be found on a local stage? The short answer is a resounding "No!"), inventive and imaginative choreographer Anna Perry, production manager (and coordinator of the musical theatre program) Nancy Allen, assistant director (and Broadway veteran) Erica Aubrey - each of whom have the requisite theatrical bona fides to make them the perfect mentors for their young charges. Together, the team work to bring musicals to life onstage at Belmont year after year with great finesse, instilling in their students (and their growing audiences) a love of the genre and a deep and abiding interest in curating an iconic collection of shows that exemplify American musical theater.

BWW Review: Starmaking Performances Lead Belmont University's Exhilarating ON THE TOWN
Jordan Anne Maurodis and Quintan Craig

On The Town, which debuted on Broadway in 1944 and has been revived on stages around the world to great acclaim in the intervening decades since, is an inspiring blend of imagination and wit set to music that transcends description: Bernstein's score is musical theater at its very best, timeless and oh-so-memorable, while Comden and Green's script and lyrics remain just as clever and unexpected as they were when the show first had an audience back during the war years.

Craig, Hogan and Beckett play the Three Sailors at the center of the tale: With 24 hours to see the sights and to experience that the world's most vibrant city has to offer, the young Americans set out to claim their place among the millions of people drawn to the Big Apple for the adventure of a lifetime. Knowing that the trio of young men will return to the dangerous and compelling times of the "real world" outside the fantastical world of musical theatre at the end of their day-long love affair with NYC only adds to the urgency of the story, replete with dangers and thrills most audience members can only recall from the history books, or perhaps even to imagine thanks to film, TV or stage treatments of the subject matter.

Hogan is enormously appealing as Ozzie, the would-be "ladykiller" sailor who falls for the intellectual, if libidinous, researcher/author Claire De Loone (played with pizzazz by the golden throated Abby Docherty, who shows off her comedic skills with insouciant glee), while Beckett is all wide-eyed innocence as the guileless pride of Peoria Chip, who goes toe to toe with the eager to please, erstwhile cabbie known as Hildy Esterhazy (Natalie Ragazzo steals every scene she's in as the flirtatious and acerbic Hildy, particularly during her electrifying rendition of "I Can Cook, Too," with music and lyrics by Bernstein).

The scene stealing in On The Town isn't limited to just those characters, however, thanks both to the show's hilariously daft but prescient Comden and Green book, but also to Shamburger's inventive staging: Riley Henderson is unctuously charming as Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework (Claire's rather dim fiancé), Macy Medford garnering her share of the laughs (and the spotlight) with her terrific turn as Hildy's flatmate Lucy Schmeeler, and Dani List pretty well stops all the proceedings with her astoundingly funny turn as Madame Maude P. Dilly, Ivy's overbearing vocal coach.

BWW Review: Starmaking Performances Lead Belmont University's Exhilarating ON THE TOWN
Abby Docherty and Quintan Craig

Imari Thompson makes an indelible impression in a variety of small roles, while the beautiful Lexie McEntire shows off her own showbiz-y attributes as Diana Dream/Dolores Dolores. Melissa Tormene and Magdalene Hutchison deliver the laughs as the omnipresent "Flossie" and "Flossie's friend," while Nathanael Phillips, Kyle Caress (both of whom alternate with Hogan and Beckett as Ozzie and Chip in the show's other cast), Brooke Bucher, Austin Querns, Liam Searcy, Hudson Snyder, Ryan Lynch and a cast of thousands - well, dozens, to be more accurate - provide ample support throughout.

And special attention must be paid to Tony Award-winner-to-be (write it down, gentle readers, you read it here first) Gabe Hoyer, whose show-opening performance of "I Feel Like I'm Not Out of Bed Yet" is brilliantly sung.

Looking at On The Town from that historical perspective - and comparing and contrasting it with the story told in An American in Paris (the adventures of American soldiers in the City of Light after it's been liberated from Nazi occupation) - lends a sense of gravitas that might be jarring and incongruous in a musical theater treatment of the period if entrusted to lesser individuals than Bernstein, Comden and Green. Instead, it's alternately movingly emotional and raucously fun in much the same way that real life can be, and it underscores the heightened reality faced by people during the War years. That such joy and creative license can be combined, like so much theatrical alchemy, to such grand effect demonstrates the transformative power of theater to inspire and to entertain at the same time.

Perhaps most impressive about this BUMT revival of On The Town is the sense of the contemporary and feeling of immediacy expressed by the ensemble of youthful actors. Obviously, Shamburger and his creative team of artists were able to convey the tenor of the times to their students, who in turn bring the show to life with an apparent understanding of the gravity of those years, which underscores the play's action and allows its lighter moments to be more meaningful and impactful.

The show's splendid choreography by Perry should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who witnessed her superb work on last fall's Fiddler on the Roof (she justifiably won the First Night Award for best choreography in 2017 for that show), and to see it performed by her cadre of wonderful dancers may be reason enough to see On The Town, were it not for the overall excellence of every production element. Perry's choreography gloriously show-stopping, filled with energy and enough movement to delight everyone watching from the darkened auditorium, showing off her dancers to perfection and paying homage to Jerome Robbins' ballet Fancy Free, which served as the inspiration for the full-blown musical known as On The Town.

Burks' orchestra performs Bernstein's score with impressive versatility and amazing musicianship, ensuring you'll be walking out of the Troutt Theatre with a song in your heart, a smile on your face and a spring in your step. You have an entire banquet of musical delights from which to choose, but for me it's always gonna be "I Can Cook, Too" that exemplifies On The Town (although, truth be told, "Lonely Town," "Lucky To Be Me" and "Ya Got Me" rank right up there).

The production's design elements are well conceived (and realized) with set design by Garry Warrington and David Shamburger, costumes by Ashley Wolfe, lighting design by Cassidy Petersheim and Caroline Morris, and stellar sound design by Randy Craft.

On The Town. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Book and Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Based on an idea by Jerome Robbins. Presented by Belmont University Musical Theatre. Directed by David Shamburger. Musical direction by Jo Lynn Burks. Choreography by Anna Perry. Through March 25. At the Troutt Theatre, Belmont University campus, Nashville. Running time 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis

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