Last night I had the privilege of seeing Leonard Bernstein and Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s classic musical On the Town at the beautiful Lyric Theatre on 42nd Street. Everything about that sentence should conjure images of the Golden Age of Broadway. The current revival of this seminal piece of musical theatre history is everything a Broadway fan could ask for and more. The first notes of The Star Spangled Banner (used in lieu of an overture) to the final curtain following the bows, the show is pure joy. It is a colorful, musical romp through New York City that reminded me why I fell in love with musicals in the first place.
The current revival of On the Town is unique because it is banking, not on star wattage, but on the power of the name recognition of the creators and the support of die-hard Broadway fans revisiting a classic. Tony Yazbeck stars as Gabey, the ringleader of a trio of sailors who are on leave to see New York City in just 24 hours, and has been hailed as the last of the matinee idols by Playbill. Yazbeck has serious Broadway chops, most notably as Tulsa in the 2008 revival of Gypsy starring Patti LuPone, and he brings everything he’s got in this star turn. Rarely have I seen a leading man have enough charisma and talent to light up a theater the size of the Lyric. He dominates that stage from his entrance to the final note of the bows. I hope that this role will give Mr. Yazbeck the recognition he deserves and maybe even a Tony nomination! His cohorts, played by Jay Armstrong Johnson & Clyde Alves, bring old fashioned comedy and style to the roles of Chip and Ozzie. Despite the exceptionally strong performances from the three leading men, the real showstoppers are the leading ladies.
Throughout the course of the show, all three sailors cross paths with women who steal their hearts, through some of the most brilliant comedy musical numbers ever written for the stage. Megan Fairchild stars as Ivy Smith, aka Miss Turnstiles, in her Broadway debut. Her career has been in ballet and she brings that class and technique to her role in On the Town, particularly in the epic ballet sequences, staged by Joshua Bergasse, in his Broadway debut as a choreographer. Elizabeth Stanley stars as Claire De Loone, an anthropologist studying the “modern man” when she runs into Ozzie in the Museum of Natural History and is immediately smitten with him during the showstopper “Carried Away,” complete with a dancing tyrannosaurus rex! Rounding out the trio of leading ladies is Alysha Umphress as Hildy, a fast talking and lovesick taxi driver. Ms. Umphress not only steals Chip’s heart but the entire show. She is fortunate to be given not one, but two showstoppers in act 1. Umphress takes the classic numbers “Come Up to My Place” and “I Can Cook Too” and destroys any memory of previous performers. She has the old school, brassy style that made legends like Ethel Merman, Elaine Stritch, and Patti LuPone stars. I’m going to predict now that you will see Alysha Umphress’ name in the running for Best Featured Actress in a Musical come June.
There is nothing cynical or deep about On the Town. The show is simply Broadway glory at its grandest. There are lush ballets, heart stopping ballads, brassy comedy numbers (assisted by fabulous character actors Jackie Hoffman, Philip Boykin, and Michael Rupert), and love scenes to make your head spin. If you don’t leave the theatre with a smile on your face, you should have your head checked. My first thought when the show finished was, “gee, they sure don’t make ‘em like they used to.” It’s true, when you think of the Golden Age of Musical Theatre you think of classics like Oklahoma!, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, AND On the Town. Thank goodness someone has the forethought to revive them in such lush style and give the next generation a little history lesson and remind us all that New York really is A HELLAVA TOWN!