On the Town review: A dazzling revival of Leonard Bernstein’s wartime musical ★★★★

Bernstein's score is brought to life with balletic choreography and exquisite costumes at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

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Any mention of On the Town and it’ll be no time before someone is breaking into a chorus of “New York, New York”, so synonymous is that ebullient number with Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s 1944 Broadway show, most famously remembered for the 1949 movie version starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.

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One of many great things about this Regents Park Open Air Theatre revival is that it shows how much more there is to Leonard Bernstein’s score than the celebration of the Battery, the Bronx, the hole in the ground and all the rest of it that tops and tails proceedings.

Songs like Carried Away, Lonely Town, and Lucky To Be Me emerge in a resplendent glory that presages what Bernstein would go on to achieve in West Side Story a few years later, and there are moments when the evening is suffused with great pathos.

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Lizzy Connolly, Samuel Edwards, Jacob Maynard, Miriam-Teak Lee and Danny Mac as Hildy, Ozzie, Chip, Claire and Gabey (photos by Jane Hobson)

But if the show is a musical triumph — under conductor Tom Deering there’s one hell of an orchestra at work backstage —  it’s also a visual one, in which costumes and choreography offer a feast to the eye and bring joy to the heart.

Director and choreographer Drew McOnie explores the work’s full balletic possibilities, and in Peter McIntosh the production has a set and costume designer who has a true artist’s way with colour. The women’s dresses in particular simply dazzle — but subtly rather than garishly, the 1940s look exquisitely rendered. A set comprising stacked-up shipping containers proves both versatile and evocative.


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In terms of the drama, the story of what happens when three sailors — Gabey, Chip and Ozzie — go in pursuit of Big Apple love and adventure during 24 hours’ shore leave tends to dwindle over the course of the evening. You do feel that McOnie’s concern is more with movement than meaning, and the hook-ups the boys make with, respectively, Ivy, Hildy and Claire don’t totally convince.

But that’s also to do with the fact that the women characters are so much stronger than the men, with the evening’s singing honours going to Miriam Teak-Lee as Claire, the elegant buttoned-up anthropologist whose passions are released when Ozzie bursts into her life. Lizzy Connolly as Hildy does a neat job of channelling Mae West and has the show’s funniest lines, while Siena Kelly charmingly captures Ivy’s sweet-sadness.

There’s much to enjoy in the performances of the three leading men — Danny Mac as Gabey, Jacob Maynard as Chip and Samuel Edwards as Ozzie, and Maynard in particular deserves recognition because until last week, when Fred Haig was unlucky enough to break his foot, he was only understudying the role.

The daring, pure-ballet sequence which shows that a sailor on shore leave might just want to find gay love rather than straight love is a strikingly original touch, and further depth is added to the production by the character parts, among whom the great Maggie Steed stands out as the whisky-swigging dragon of a singing teacher Madame Dilly.

“Sex and art don’t mix,” she observes. “If they did I’d have gone straight to the top.” This On the Town might not go straight to the top but it’s still a super evening’s entertainment. 

@SimonOHagan

On the Town is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 1 July


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