On the Town is a story suitable for the outdoors for sure, one that charts the adventures of three sailors as they look for love during their 24 hours on land, tearing through New York City’s subway system, taxicabs, and piers in a madcap race against the clock. If the serene garden setting of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre sounds like the wrong kind of outside setting for this most skyscraper-snuggling of New York musicals, you’d be surprised. This new revival of the 1944 musical, with endlessly exciting music by Leonard Bernstein and energetically playful lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who also wrote the book), nuzzles right into its new surroundings in an ultimately satisfying production directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie and featuring a refreshingly diverse young cast.
The set design takes its inspiration, apparently, from the naval shipyard: Peter McKintosh’s scenery mainly consists of giant, hollow shipping containers, spotted with stoplights: these rusting but mobile boxes transform into train cars or Carnegie Hall rehearsal studios or nightclubs as needed. It’s an odd aesthetic (one doesn’t tend to associate On the Town with corrosion), but the brown metals blend into the park background and allow the natural environment to mesh with the imagined skyline far more smoothly than any literal New York City set would allow. And, at least at evening performances, as the trio’s day in the Big Apple comes to an end, the real sun sets too.
Even as that star sets, though, there’s another star on the rise: that’s the wonderful Miriam Teak-Lee, making her professional debut (but you’d never believe it) as the man-mad anthropologist Claire De Loone who falls for sailor Ozzie (a well-matched, delightful Samuel Edwards). Teak-Lee oozes charisma and confidence, displaying surgical precision of comic vocal control in her first-act duet, “Carried Away.” Danny Mac’s sweet-voiced Gabey sets off in pursuit of Siena Kelly’s charming, sweetly-danced Ivy Smith (another impressive professional debut), whose photo he has seen on the subway. Meanwhile, raunchy cab driver Hildy (Lizzy Connolly) aggressively woos Chip (Jacob Maynard, promoted from understudy to star following an injury in rehearsals), derailing his meticulous tourist plans; their scenes together feel a bit undercooked, but they both sing and dance winningly.
The three couples receive some cheerfully goofy backup from a trio of supporting performances: Naoko Mori as Hildy’s daffily dopey roommate Lucy Schmeeler; Mark Heenehan as Claire’s long-suffering fiancé; and Maggie Steed as Ivy’s plastered singing teacher Madame Dilly, who instructs her students to practice scales standing on their heads so she can swig her flask unobserved. Rodney Earl Clarke also opens the show with a powerfully sung rendition of “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet.”
The whole cast, exuberant ensemble included, is well-served by Tom Deering’s warm music direction of Bernstein’s shimmering score, which registers as particularly Copland-esque here (Copland was a close mentor of Bernstein’s), especially when paired with McOnie’s explosive choreography that often conjures up memories of Martha Graham’s dances for Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Occasionally, the choreography can feel invasive when it’s uncalled for, as in the fidgety backup dancers behind Gabey’s solo “Lonely Town” (it’s especially distracting because of McKintosh’s blindingly bright costumes for the civvies). When dance is the priority, though, as it is for much of this heavily balletic show, McOnie’s work feels inspired and inventive, especially in the dream “Coney Island” ballet (with darker tinges of a nightmare in this version).
McOnie demonstrates his ambivalence towards On the Town’s lightweight frilliness by transforming a pas de deux in the middle of the first act into a moving, wordless presentation of a storyline, involving an anonymous sailor’s secret love, that could never have been staged in 1944. In the intensity of this interpolated scene, with its sudden suggestion of high stakes, McOnie certainly means well but threatens to upstage the musical’s own plot. The only seriously emotional moment of the show as written comes in the pitch-perfect masterpiece, “Some Other Time,” a quartet of soft regrets and wistfulness at the end of 24 hours of romance, led gorgeously here by Teak-Lee.
It may not be a flawless revival, but, as Claire sings in that last bittersweet song, “let’s be glad for what we’ve had and what’s to come”: there’s plenty to love in this On the Town and lots to look forward to from its young stars, especially Miriam Teak-Lee.
On the Town is playing at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until July 1.
Photo: Tristram Kenton