Living in New York City, day in and day out, it’s easy to forget the fun of experiencing it all for the first time. The wonder of looking up at the skyscrapers from the streets below. The excitement of being among the diversity of its residents. It’s the sort of childlike discovery that makes even a crowded subway seem like a magical place.
That unmitigated glee is alive and well at the Lyric Theatre, where the Broadway revival of the they-don’t-make-‘em-like-they-used-to musical “On the Town” is now open. Tony-winning director John Rando (“Urinetown”) has embraced the classic tale, about three American sailors on 24-hour shore leave in New York City during World War II, and staged a joyous production that’ll make you want to fall in love with the city — and musical theater — all over again.
“On the Town” began as a ballet by legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins (1944’s “Fancy Free”), which was set to the music of Leonard Bernstein (“West Side Story). The idea transformed into a Broadway musical that same year, with the songwriting team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green (“Wonderful Town,” “Peter Pan”) providing book and lyrics.
Fans of the 1949 film version, starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin, should be warned: that film dispensed most of the Broadway production’s songs and replaced them with new tunes by Roger Edens.
There are plenty of songs you’ll recognize regardless of your experience with the show — chief among them the infectious opener “New York, New York” (which made it to the movie), the jazz cabaret standard “I Can Cook, Too” (for which Bernstein also wrote the lyrics) and ballads like “Lonely Town” and “Some Other Time.” These songs have never sounded better either, with a superb 28-piece orchestra giving Bernstein’s complex score the fullness it deserves.
Leading the cast of 31 are our three sailors: the earnest romantic Gabey (Tony Yazbeck, “Gypsy”), the optimistic goofball Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson, “Hands on a Hardbody”) and the sex-crazed ladies’ man Ozzie (Clyde Alves, “Bullets Over Broadway”). Together Yazbeck, Johnson and Alves give our trio of protagonists boundless energy and charm, making them loveable tour guides through this adventure.
They’re also each met with equally compelling love interests. Alysha Umphress, a standout in “American Idiot”, slays as Hildy, a no-nonsense cab driver who takes Chip under her wing. Umphress’ Hildy has just the perfect mixture of brass and sass, seen clearly in her smooth take on “I Can Cook, Too.” She makes an adorable team with Johnson, who brings the laughs (and the effervescent flips) during their duet, “Come Up to My Place.”
Elizabeth Stanley, known for her understated roles on Broadway in “Cry-Baby” and “Company,” lets loose as Claire De Loone, an anthropologist with a bit of a naughty side who quickly falls for Ozzie. Stanley has never sounded better, her soprano on full-display in numbers such as “Carried Away.” She’s also never committed to the absurd quite as flawlessly, and Alves’ Ozzie makes for a grounding partner.
In her Broadway debut, Megan Fairchild is an elegant Ivy Smith, the object of Gabey’s affections. Formerly a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, Fairchild puts her skills to good use in the “The Imaginary Coney Island” sequence, which she dances alongside Yazbeck. It’s a beautiful moment from two beautiful dancers, who make us fully believe their love connection.
Choreography (picture above) comes from the Emmy-winning Joshua Bergasse (“Smash”), who designs his movements in the spirit of Robbins’ original choreography, without literal recreation of Robbins’ work. Bergasse takes full advantage of the talent in his cast, giving intricate steps to our three leads that strongly establish character, while still allowing plenty of time to showcase the breadth of talent among the 20 ensemble members.
Rando has been with “On the Town” for nearly six years now, directing a 2008 Encores! concert production and a 2013 mounting at the Barrington Stage Company (from which most of the Broadway revival cast and creatives helm). His time with the piece has clearly been well spent, and his keen eye for pacing and comedy makes the often dated material and setups feel fresh and bright.
The show even opens with a collective singing of the national anthem — something wildly popular during wartime-entertainment, but something I’ve never experienced in my lifetime.
Kudos should also be given to the hilarious Jackie Hoffman (“Xanadu,” “The Addams Family”), clearly in her element here as she portrays multiple, wacky, scene-stealing women. One imagines Rando’s direction of Hoffman boiled down to one line: “Do your thing.” And boy, is she ever.
Sets and projections by Beowulf Boritt and costumes by Jess Goldstein color the stage with a modern elegance that perfectly matches the tone of the production. And the inventive puppet design by Matt Acheson gives “Carried Away” the bite it needs.
Of all the musicals of its generation, “On the Town” has never received the same level of praise as some of its contemporaries from, say, Cole Porter or Rodgers & Hammerstein. But 70 years after its premiere, Rando’s glorious revival reminds you just what a gem of a piece it is. This is one walk down memory lane you’ll want to take.
"On the Town," at the Lyric Theatre, 213 W. 42nd St. Tickets: $37-$157. Call 877-250-2929 or visit ticketmaster.com