Carried Away by the Sights! Lights! Nights! (NYTimes ON THE TOWN Review)

By BEN BRANTLEY for the NEW YORK TIMES

And now, a show about sex that you can take the whole family to: the kids, the grandparents, even your sister the nun. That idea may sound kind of creepy, or (worse) dreary. But I assure you that the jubilant revival of “On the Town,” which opened Thursday night at the Lyric Theater, is anything but.

On the contrary, this merry mating dance of a musical feels as fresh as first sunlight as it considers the urgent quest of three sailors to find girls and get, uh, lucky before their 24-hour shore leave is over. If there’s a leer hovering over “On the Town,” a seemingly limp 1944 artifact coaxed into pulsing new life by the director John Rando and the choreographer Joshua Bergasse, it’s the leer of an angel.

The best-known song from this show — which has music by Leonard Bernstein, with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green — describes its setting as “a helluva town.” But the town in question — “New York, New York,” if you didn’t know — feels closer to heaven here.

Photo
From left, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck and Clyde Alves in "On the Town" at the Lyric Theater. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times 

Designed in a spectrum of jelly-bean hues that makes vintage Technicolor look pallid, this is a parallel-universe New York in which hectic urban life acquires the pace and grace of a storybook ballet. It’s a bustling, jostling cartoon that also floats like a swan. And it feels right that the show’s central object of desire, a subway beauty queen pursued by our leading sailor (the wonderful Tony Yazbeck), is portrayed by a principal dancer from the New York City Ballet, Megan Fairchild.

New York — I mean the real New York, both back in the day and today — is also a world capital of reinvention, where what was once regarded as terminally passé can surface anew as the hottest, latest thing. “On the Town” has long been looked upon with the amused but distant fondness reserved for fading picture postcards.

Sure, it felt irresistibly young and sassy when it opened during the entertainment-hungry World War II years, with its talented team of newcomers. In addition to Comden, Green and Bernstein, there was the rising choreographer Jerome Robbins, and they were all still in their 20s when they put the show together. Few things age faster, though, than the blatantly youthful. (Try watching a Taylor Swift video in a decade or so.) And the two Broadway revivals before now, in 1971 and 1998, had short and impoverished lives. Even the fondly remembered 1949 movie version, which starred Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, now looks winceably antiseptic.

But Mr. Rando, whose Broadway career includes “Urinetown” (yay) and “The Wedding Singer” (meh), has a loving affinity for this material that dispels the scent of mothballs. He has directed “On the Town” twice before — an Encores! concert version at City Center in 2008 and, in 2013, for the Barrington Stage Company, in Pittsfield, Mass.

I caught the Barrington production and admired how it restored the libido to “On the Town.” It was one of the highlights of my summer, a perfect warm-weather diversion in a small, bucolic theater. But the news that it would be coming to Broadway — and to the cavernous Lyric Theater, once home to a singing Spider-Man — gave me pause. Frothy charm can go flabby when it gains weight.

Yet Mr. Rando’s “On the Town” has grown up quite nicely, thank you, with much of its original cast not only intact but also improved. Every element has been heightened in just the right way, a delicate achievement when you consider the heightening that’s aspired to.

For “On the Town” traffics in two kinds of exaggerations, that of the earthy, even dirty cartoon and of the gossamer romance of poets. This reflects the bicultural nature of Robbins and Bernstein, who belonged equally to Broadway and the concert hall.

Some of its numbers, in which comic archetypes cozy up or collide, could be placed directly into the cel of an animated Looney Tunes short. Others could slide seamlessly onto the stage of the Paris Opera.

This “On the Town” makes you forget that such contrasting sensibilities could ever be considered irreconcilable, at least in the world of musical comedy. Beowulf Boritt’s simple sliding sets, Jess Goldstein’s costumes and Jason Lyons’s lighting evoke the city as a super candy store in which all manner of sweets are on offer. What’s surprising is how fluent the entire cast is in both the high and low languages they are required to speak.

Start with Mr. Yazbeck as Gabey, the most unworldly of the three shipmates who invade New York. He’s a greener-than-alfalfa farm boy, so clumsy that he can’t say hello to a stranger without muffing it.

But when he looks inward, to his lovelorn heart, he becomes a supremely eloquent dancer, a fusion of Astaire’s elegance and Kelly’s bounce. And he has a yearning voice to match, plied to swoony effect in ballads like the great “Lonely Town.”

The way Gabey dances is an idealized but very specific version of his character’s wants and needs. And so it is for his chums, Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson), the nerdy one, and Ozzie (Clyde Alves), the macho one. In pas de trois, they all dance the same steps, yet their approaches feel as individual as fingerprints.

Throughout the show, which includes the dreamiest dream ballets I’ve seen in years, Mr. Bergasse (best known for the television show “Smash”) maintains this rare feeling of idiosyncrasy in harmony. Similarly, he’s captured the Robbins spirit, but stamped it with his own vivid signature.

Women found themselves newly in charge of the home front during World War II, so it feels appropriate that the soul mates of Chip and Ozzie should be such exuberantly take-charge gals. As Hildy, the forthright taxi driver who hijacks Chip to her place, Alysha Umphress is a red-hot mama who sings double entendres with a prurience-proof, bebop gusto.

A paradigm of refined comic exaggeration, Elizabeth Stanley is Claire de Loon, the anthropologist who finds her perfect primitive man in Ozzie. Her singing voice, which slides between operatic trills and lowdown purrs, is a breezy shorthand for the show’s double edge.

As for Ms. Fairchild, whom Gabey falls for when he sees her picture as this month’s Miss Turnstiles, she looks and talks like the sugar-sweet girl next door that all-American servicemen once dreamed of. When she dances, though, she’s a goddess, that girl as she appears in their dreams.

The large supporting cast embraces both virtuoso comic shtick artists — including that cutup par excellence Jackie Hoffman, along with Stephen DeRosa, Michael Rupert, Phillip Boykin and Allison Guinn — and a corps de ballet that seems to be dancing on air, even in dirty old Times Square. If the show could still use some tightening, especially of its slapstick riffs, I never checked my watch.

That’s partly because there’s always that music — ah, that music. Under the direction of James Moore, Bernstein’s score belongs equally to heaven and earth. It is by turns jazzy (“I Can Cook, Too”), parodistic (“Carried Away”) and jaunty (“Lucky to Be Me”). And then, with an uplift that takes your breath away, it flies up into an empyrean where sexual itches are transformed into great romantic love and a concrete-hard city feels as soft as a bed of clouds.

Correction: October 21, 2014 

A theater review on Friday about “On the Town,” at the Lyric Theater in Manhattan, misspelled the given name of the actress who plays Hildy. As the listing of credits correctly noted, she is Alysha Umphress, not Alyssa.

On the Town

Music by Leonard Bernstein; book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, based on an idea by Jerome Robbins; directed by John Rando; choreography by Joshua Bergasse; music direction by James Moore; sets and projections by Beowulf Boritt; costumes by Jess Goldstein; lighting by Jason Lyons; sound by Kai Harada; hair design by Leah Loukas; makeup design by Joe Dulude II; associate choreographer, Greg Graham; production stage manager, Bonnie L. Becker; additional material by Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins; music coordinator, John Miller; company manager, Carol Oune; associate producer, Daniel Rakowski; technical supervisor, Juniper Street Productions; general manager, Foresight Theatrical. Presented by Howard & Janet Kagan, Severn Partners Entertainment, Bruce Robert Harris and Jack W. Batman, Paula Marie Black, Nigel Lythgoe, Michael J. Moritz Jr., Michael A. Alden/Dale Badway/Ken Mahoney, Ambassador Theater Group, Margie and Bryan Weingarten, Kim Schall, Michael Rubenstein, Terry/Louise/Chris Lingner, Corey Brunish and Brisa Trinchero, Stephanie Rosenberg, Dominick Laruffa Jr. and Rob Hinderliter, Neal Rubinstein/Jeremy Handelman, Lizbeth Bintz, Riki Kane Larimer, Allan and Adam Gordon, Matt Ross/Ben Feldman/Pamela Cooper and  Barrington Stage Company. At the Lyric Theater, 213 West 42nd Street, Manhattan, 800-982-2787, ticketmaster.com. Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes.

WITH: Tony Yazbeck (Gabey), Jay Armstrong Johnson (Chip), Clyde Alves (Ozzie), Megan Fairchild (Ivy), Alysha Umphress (Hildy), Elizabeth Stanley (Claire), Michael Rupert (Pitkin), Allison Guinn (Nun/Singer/Lucy Schmeeler), Phillip Boykin (Workman/Miss Turnstiles’ Announcer/Dream Coney Island Master of Ceremonies/Bimmy), Stephen DeRosa (3rd Workman/Bill Poster/Figment/Actor/Nedick’s Attendant/Diamond Eddie’s Master of Ceremonies/Conga Cabana Master of Ceremonies/Conductor) and Jackie Hoffman (Little Old Lady/Maude P. Dilly/Diana Dream/Dolores Dolores).