It is easy to understand why George C. Wolfe is so fascinated with "On the Town" that he has re-worked his 1997 Central Park production for Broadway. More than half a century after its premiere in 1944, this is still a potentially intriguing show.
Leonard Bernstein's score brilliantly combines the swing and drive of 1940s pop with the hard-edged, discordant noise of New York. As Bruce Coughlin's tight, explosive orchestration proves in this production, it still beats with a vigorous pulse.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green's book and lyrics crackle with hard-bitten exuberance and caustic wit.
And the story they tell is at once simple and surprisingly rich.
The plot three young sailors trying to cram sex, romance and sightseeing into a 24-hour shore leave in New York has an in-built dynamo that generates furious action. But it also has some deeper undercurrents. The clock that is ticking on their pleasures is attached to a time bomb. This is wartime, and these fresh-faced kids might soon be dead.
The other sharp seasoning is a bold take on sex. "On the Town" turns a stock melodramatic plot innocent young girls being seduced in the city on its head. Here, the innocents abroad are the men. The lusty, worldly-wise seducers are two women, a taxi driver with her hormonal meter running and a loopy anthropologist with a more than academic interest in the male of the species.
All of this creates opportunities for a thrilling ride through the mad playground of the modern city. The pity is that Wolfe's production seldom grasps them.
The first problem emerges even before the action begins. The entire stage is dominated by a massive bridge on which the orchestra is perched.
The impact is startling for about 30 seconds. Then you realize that this monumental obstacle is going to stay there all night, looming so gloomily over the performers that it might as well have been hung around their necks.
In effect, Wolfe and designer Adrianne Lobel have spent a great deal of money to turn a big, open Broadway stage into a small, cramped space. The bridge pushes all the action to the front and forces all the movement into awkward segments. For a show that depends crucially on creating a sense of the teeming, free-flowing city, the decision to impose such a static image is disastrous. All the more so because, in spite of the efforts of three successive choreographers, the dancing has worked its way back to a passable but pale imitation of Jerome Robbins' original movements.
There remains, however, the possibility that the sailors will still be able to convey a gripping sense of their situation. Here, though, the roles are undercast. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Robert Montano and Perry Laylon Ojeda have charm and talent. But none of them yet has the charisma needed to lead a Broadway cast in roles made famous on film by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.
There is, moreover, an imbalance between them and the much more confident women that overwhelms any attempt at comic subtlety in the sexual relationships. As Hildy, Lea DeLaria drives a taxi but occupies the stage with all the grace, and all the force, of a Sherman tank. Sarah Knowlton's anthropologist has a bold, brassy energy.
Mary Testa overacts wildly but sometimes to hilarious effect, as a louche alcoholic singing teacher. The willowy Tai Jimenez, as Miss Turnstiles, the object of the sailors' quest, is graceful as a gazelle and supple as a snake.
With both the men and the city such nebulous presences, though, the story never rises to New York heights.
We are left to wander, sadly, through a one-note "Town."
If anyone tries to sell you Brooklyn Bridge in the near future, don't be that surprised. It may not be a joke. Some lively facsimile of that same old bridge is the principal artifact of the new production of the revered Leonard Bernstein musical "On the Town," which opened at the Gershwin Theater last night.
And, who knows, someone might just want to sell it. For while it provides a swell perch for the largish wind orchestra demanded by the more symphonic moments (what the original director George Abbott lovingly called "that Prok-ah-fieff stuff") of Bernstein's score, it also effectively reduces the proscenium arch for George C. Wolfe's sprightly restaging into something of almost letterbox proportions. Not entirely helpful.
But that orchestral Brooklyn Bridge is not the only thing wrong - among quite a few right - of this new "On the Town," many of them all too basic.
Apart from an off-Broadway production in 1959, before the present revival which originated in Central Park in 1997, the only major New York production since the smash 1944 original came in 1971 and ran a mere 73 performances. Should that not have told someone something?
The musical is based on a masterpiece, Jerome Robbins' first ballet, "Fancy Free," with one of Bernstein's most inventive scores, which has consistently held its place in the ballet repertory for more than a half-a-century, and still comes up - indeed came up only last month - as fresh a new-sprouted, well-watered daisy.
"On the Town" was surely never that kind of agelessly good. Robbins and Bernstein, in expanding Robbins' first ballet concept, emerged with the same three sailors from "Fancy Free," and made them into three hick gobs finding New York and romance in just a 24-hour leave before shipping off to war.
In 1944 there was a special poignancy in the situation. Bernstein, moreover, wrote a dazzling, orchestrally complex new score, with newcomers Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who also took leading roles in the production) providing apt, witty and delightful lyrics which spun off the tongue and, most important, kept pace with Bernstein.
The snag is that the musical's diffuse story doesn't have that single, pulsing, ongoing thrust which is surely one essential requirement of a truly classic Broadway musical. Result: It sounds better on CD than it looks in the theater!
I imagine that in the 1944 original, which I did not see, despite the undoubted magic of George Abbott's staging, the key linking role was played by Robbins' choreography - for, in addition to three major dance numbers, this is almost a danced-through musical. And in 1971 Joe Layton's choreography - the Robbins is lost virtually without trace - proved a major disappointment.
Having missed this production's Central Park predecessor, I have no idea how its now discarded Eliot Feld choreography fared - Feld a very distinguished choreographer, who has worked with Robbins, was here replaced by Keith Young, who I had never heard of.
Apparently he was unofficially helped, right at the end, by an unlisted Joey McKneely. The dancing is weak - not as weak as, say that in "Footloose" - but not interesting, original or vital enough to carry "On the Town" where it needed carrying.
So there was Wolfe with three strikes against him (basic concept, basic setting and basic choreography) admirably refusing to count himself out. And he has managed to do some lovely things - the staging of some shop-windows (wonderful ingenuity), the nightclub scenes, the Coney Island sequence, in effect the whole show is marvelously directed.
And the casting - completely of unknowns - is absolutely impeccable, without a weak link. Okay, personalities like Comden and Green are unrepeatable, but this cast is a real honey.
Lea DeLaria, with the looks of a pretty truck and the voice of a Betty Hutton, should become a star, but the other five youngsters on the town, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Tai Jiminez, Sarah Knowlton, Robert Montano and Perry Layton Ojeda are all perfectly in focus. And Jonathan Freeman also scores as a pompous elderly fiance, while Mary Testa skillfully steals scenes as a tipsy vocal coach.
Apart from the dancing - although not to blame the lively dancers - and the perhaps mistaken design concept, it is difficult to see how this production could be much improved. But it seems that unlike that perennial Robbins ballet, "Fancy Free," "On the Town" hasn't really stood the unforgiving test of time.
The city that never sleeps is feeling drowsy in the opening moments of ''On the Town.'' Leonard Bernstein's score for this 1944 show begins with the musical equivalent of a yawn and a stretch, the sense of dormant urban energies slowly surfacing.
The lazy, purring harmonies of a group of workmen just out of bed are set off by more dissonant, abrupt sounds from the orchestra, and they are sounds that tingle with anticipation. New York, New York, is about to wake up, and when New York wakes up, it explodes. It's impossible not to be stirred by the rhythms of expectation in this music, a preface to the entrance of three sailors on shore leave in Manhattan, dizzy with the possibilities of the day ahead.
Similar feelings of anticipation are sure to be shared by the audiences of the new incarnation of ''On the Town,'' which opened last night at the Gershwin Theater. And for those familiar with the troubled history of this revival, the feelings are edged with anxiety. A question hovers that, while unspoken, seems as pronounced as the brass in the orchestra: Can the director, George C. Wolfe, for whom this show has been an obsessive labor of devotion, bring an admittedly dated period piece into immediate, pulsing life? Will ''On the Town'' itself fully wake up in 1998?
That the answer is no is perhaps the saddest part of what has been a particularly disheartening season on Broadway. From the moment the chorus of sailors bursts onstage belting the show's most famous song, ''New York, New York,'' there's an aura of exertion that is only rarely translated into the effervescence that is the lifeblood of both cities and musicals. Indeed, most of what follows feels strangely somnolent, despite the presence in the cast of two rousing human alarm clocks named Lea DeLaria and Mary Testa.
There were high hopes when it was announced that Mr. Wolfe, the artistic director of the Joseph Papp Public Theater/ New York Shakespeare Festival, would be staging ''On the Town'' as part of the Public's series of alfresco performances at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park last year. The show was the product of four impudent talents just beginning to make their names in the 1940's: Bernstein, the choreographer Jerome Robbins and the show's lyricists and book writers, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
A bouncy serenade to both a flashy, pushy city and to the musical theater, it seemed an appropriate vehicle for the director who had brought brilliant contemporary verve to productions ranging from Shakespeare's ''Tempest'' to the historical dance musical ''Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk.'' It was Mr. Wolfe's expressed intention to rechannel the youthful exuberance of the original ''On the Town'' into a bright, ethnically mixed tapestry to match the New York of today.
Yet in the park, ''On the Town'' was far from a complete success. The dances, by the experimental choreographer Eliot Feld, had an oddly listless quality that hardly lived up to memories of Robbins's dynamic production numbers. The show felt joltingly incomplete; much of its fresh-faced cast seemed correspondingly uncertain.
The group of producers who had planned to take ''On the Town'' to Broadway changed their minds. Mr. Wolfe proceeded on his own, with the New York Shakespeare Festival as the sole producer of the $5 million show. He hired a new choreographer, Keith Young, best known for his work in music videos and concert tours, and recast several of the key roles. A few weeks before the opening, rumors flared about Mr. Wolfe's continuing dissatisfaction with the dances, and Joey McKneely, the choreographer of ''The Life,'' was brought in as a consultant.
The resulting production certainly looks vibrant, awash in hard-candy colors and spangles of light. And Bernstein's eclectic score still throbs with a purely urban intensity. Yet often the show resembles the giant reproductions of hand-painted tourist postcards that figure prominently in Adrianne Lobel's sets. They're eye-catching; they're amusing; they're flat. This latest edition of ''On the Town'' is a definite improvement on what was seen in the park, but it largely remains trapped in two picturesque dimensions, vividly underscored by Paul Tazewell's comic-book costumes and Paul Gallo's lighting.
In telling the story of three sailors who meet and fall in love with three very different women during a 24-hour shore leave, the production fails to convey the urgency of romance set to a ticking clock. Mr. Young's choreography is smooth, with lots of twirls and perky leaps; but it is not sharply focused, and it doesn't give off much heat. Similarly, Mr. Wolfe's staging, including a tedious Keystone Kops-style chase sequence, can be frantic without being funny. And the cast members often fail to find a revivifying connection with the revue-style, period wit of the Comden and Green book. They seem to deliver the jokes at arm's length.
Perry Laylon Ojeda and Tai Jimenez newly cast as the ingenuous sailor Gabey and the winner of the Miss Turnstiles pageant with whom he falls in love, are charming presences. Mr. Ojeda has a wistful tenor that shimmers fetchingly through the ballads ''Lonely Town'' and ''Lucky to Be Me,'' and Ms. Jimenez is a sweetly lissome dancer. But they are also blankly passive, and you forget about them when they aren't onstage.
The same can be said, to a lesser extent, of Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Robert Montano as Gabey's bell-bottomed pals. Mr. Ferguson, in particular, has a boyish likability, but you get the feeling that all three sailors are marking time, looking for direction, when what's demanded is a seize-the-day aggressiveness.
This most un-sailorlike mildness is party built into the script. In social terms, the most fascinating aspect of ''On the Town'' today is that its women are the active romantic partners, a mirror of changing sexual roles in the war years. Ozzie (Mr. Montano) is taken in hand by Claire DeLoone (Sarah Knowlton, in an initially shrill performance that improves greatly as the evening goes on), an anthropologist whose primal instincts get the better of her. And scrawny Chip (Mr. Ferguson) is picked up, in more ways than one, by a steamroller of a taxi driver named Hildy.
Hildy, praises be, is played by Lea DeLaria, a large, loud stand-up comedian who turns out to have been born for the musical comedy stage. She was the jewel of the park production, and she is also this one's glittering center. She is now pushing the comedy harder than she has to in her opening scenes, but once she starts singing, in that big brass voice of hers, she is in complete and confident control.
Working through the saucy double-entendres and scat embellishments of ''I Can Cook Too,'' Hildy's mating call of a solo, Ms. DeLaria makes an obliging captive of anyone watching her. Indeed, this actress seems to grab the audience by the lapels, demanding and then justifying its attention. In this sense, she does what the show itself doesn't, and there's an electric buzz when she's onstage that makes you pointedly aware of what you've been missing otherwise.
There are lively caricatures from Annie Golden, as Hildy's snuffling roommate, and Jonathan Freeman, as Clare's starchy, masochistic fiance. But only Ms. Testa, as an alcoholic Italian voice teacher, is on Ms. DeLaria's top-shelf level. Looking like Anna Magnani as drawn by Walt Disney, Ms. Testa gives a risky, outrageously florid performance that pays off at every step. Whether turning a simple ''good morning'' into an operatic aria or recoiling at the sight of her own monkey fur coat, this actress makes a fine art of comic exaggeration.
The go-for-broke zeal she brings to her performance makes her lines seem newly minted, just as Ms. DeLaria creates the illusion that she is inventing the songs she sings. By contrast, there's a self-consciousness about most of the other performances; they bring to mind a group of kids who have put on their grandparents' clothes and aren't quite sure how to wear them.
This may partly come from the tensions that have beset the opening of this revival, which has undergone considerable last-minute revisions. You often have the sense of voices inside the performers' heads yelling, ''Be funny!,'' something hardly conducive to spontaneity. It's possible the actors will relax into their roles more as the show continues its run.
As it is, this ''On the Town'' only rarely makes 1944 feel like the present. More often, the production seems to be looking over its shoulder with a faint perplexity at what is definitely, to borrow the title of the evening's most poignant song, ''some other time.''