Saturday, 3 June 2017

Theatre review: On The Town

Continuing Drew McOnie's inexorable rise to challenge Matthew Bourne as Britain's most famous choreographer, and after his dances were one of the reasons for last year's Jesus Christ Superstar's success, he returns to Regent's Park to add directing to his CV as well. And it makes sense to have the same person direct and choreograph On The Town because it's the kind of show where the two seem very much like the same job: It was originally conceived as a ballet, and wordless dance sequences still form a huge part of Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's musical. Best known for the Gene Kelly / Frank Sinatra film version, and for its big number "New York, New York," it follows three sailors on 24 hours' shore leave who each have a different idea of how to spend their big day, but all end up going on the same quest once Gabey (Danny Mac, who turns out not to be a discount cosmetics brand but a person,) sees a poster of a beauty queen on the subway.

The three split up to find "Miss Turnstiles" but Gabey finds Ivy (Siena Kelly) in the first place he looks; the other two don't realise they can stop looking, and each ends up finding a woman to spend the day with instead.

Ozzie (Samuel Edwards) is spotted by anthropologist Claire (Miriam-Teak Lee,) who thinks he looks like the missing link, but soon develops an interest in him that's far from academic; while Chip (Jacob Maynard) just wants to see the sights, but has no chance in the face of horny cabbie Hildy (Lizzy Connolly, the production's MVP,) who's set her sights on dragging him back home with her. Each couple gets someone standing in their way: Claire is engaged, even she doesn't seem to know why, to Judge Pitkin (Mark Heenehan,) Hildy's flatmate Lucy (an underused Naoko Mori,) is stuck at home with a cold, and Ivy's music teacher Madame Dilly (Maggie Steed) is just downright out to sabotage her if it means she gets her fees on time.

And that's pretty much it as far as the story goes, which explains why it's so heavily dependent on dance sequences, and also why McOnie is the right man for the job. An ensemble is kept very busy filling the stage and keeping up with constant costume changes, and McOnie avoids old-fashioned Broadway numbers with synchronised movements for the most part, instead tending to give everyone individual steps. The cast are really put through their paces - too much so perhaps, as the production has already been plagued by injury. There's also more low-key moments, including one that certainly wouldn't have been in the original, as among the sailors looking for women we see an illicit gay hookup as well; this dance ended up being Penny's favourite in its depiction of the men pushing down their feelings, and she mentioned it a few times on our way out of the park.

Apart from the famous opener there's only really the second act's "Ya Got Me" to act as any kind of showstopper, the mostly ballad-heavy song list doesn't contain much that's memorable and in fact the film replaced most of these with new numbers (although I did enjoy the running gag of Gabey being stood up then constantly running into a song called "I Wish I Was Dead," about being stood up.)

Comden and Green's book is also fairly low on decent gags but although it remains family-friendly, McOnie has made sure to leave no doubt what the sailors and girls really want to get up to, avoiding it feeling too much like a museum piece. At today's matinee I did feel the whole cast took a long while to really come to life but once they did they made the most of the material and added a spark of fresh life - the arrival of Connolly giving Hily a shamelessly over-the-top sex drive really does help bring everyone's energy levels up a notch.

There's wittiness, too, in Peter McKintosh's set and the way it turns the docks into numerous diverse New York locations, the ever-busy ensemble lugging ever-more elaborate scenery out of cracks between the scaffolding. And I have to mention McKintosh's costumes, particularly for the women - seeing a matinee no doubt loses something in the use of lighting, but it did seem to me that a sunny afternoon was perfect to show off the procession of Technicolor dresses to their best. I don't think the production will fool anyone that the show is anything other than a slight one, but it's a great treatment of the material with just a hint of modern sensibility injected in with the nostalgia.

On The Town by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, based on a concept by Jerome Robbins, is booking until the 1st of July at the Open Air Theatre, Regents Park.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

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