Contemporary musical theater is obsessed with the edgy. So many writers strive for dark, for subversive, for cinematic, working to “elevate” an artform that’s often regarded as shallow and silly. I have no problem with the innovative or boundary-pushing. However, it’s so refreshing to see a piece of musical theater like the new revival of On The Town, which opened last week at the Lyric Theatre, that’s truly a classic in every sense of the word. Sure, the plot is thin—three sailors, on a twenty-four-hour leave in New York City, are on a search for love (or sex) across Manhattan and Brooklyn. And fine, the humor can be broad—double entendres, slapstick, and scenery-chewing abound. But sometimes, shallow can be almost sublime—and if not, at least it can be pretty damn fun.
Visually, the show is sumptuous. The sets and costumes are dominated by bright colors right out of a Warhol painting. Projections flash and lights swirl, evoking the hustle of the city. The choreography, by Joshua Bergasse, is stunning—these people can dance, and dance they do. And in perhaps the biggest departure from the typically contemporary production, we get a 20-plus piece orchestra rather than a pit driven by guitars and synth—strings, brass, woodwinds, and all—actually doing justice to Leonard Bernstein, perhaps the greatest composer for the Broadway stage.
Several of the performers really make the most out of the script and score. As the sassy cab driver Hildy, Alysha Umphress manages to belt and riff the hell out of the classic “I Can Cook Too” while still staying true to the comedy, and Jay Armstrong Johnson and Elizabeth Stanley are charmingly over-the-top as the nerdy sailor and a anthropologist trying and failing to repress her nymphomaniacal tendencies. Unfortunately, these inflated characters overshadow what’s supposed to be the central performance of the show. As the lovelorn Gabey, Tony Yazbeck sings and dances beautifully. However, he fails to get us invested in his story or to convince us of its emotional stakes. As the entire plot converges on Gabey and whether or not he’ll find what he’s looking for, I found myself wondering why everyone cared.
Nevertheless, On The Town is a tremendous achievement. It brings to life all the timeless elements of the American musical without ever feeling like an historical relic. The show is decidedly impressive, often funny, and definitely entertaining—and if it never quite becomes moving or thought-provoking, I can’t say I really minded.