'On the Town' - A Sweet, Frothy Musical Valentine

Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck, and Clyde Alves in On the Town
(©Joan Marcus)

It’s as substantial as a serving of cotton candy, and while you’re sitting at the Lyric Theatre on 42nd Street, the revival of the classic 1944 musical On the Town is just as enjoyable. It’s a sweet, fluffy treat.

By this juncture, the premise of the show is probably known the world over, thanks to the 1949 movie that starred, among others, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. Three sailors get 24 hours leave in the Big Apple, and they want to make the most of it. That means seeing the sights and along the way, if they’re lucky, they wouldn’t mind meeting a girl. Or, to use today’s parlance, having a hookup before what one presumes will be weeks or months at sea.

With a gloriously jazz-y score by Leonard Bernstein, outfitted with witty lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (the show’s book writers as well), the musical spirals through the guys’ adventures, which get detoured because of one of them, Gaby (Tony Yazbeck), takes a shine to a poster he sees on the subway. He wants, no needs, to meet the month’s “Miss Turnstiles,” Ivy (Megan Fairchild). So his buds, Ozzie (Clyde Alves) and Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) change their plans to help him find her, and along the way, they meet women for themselves. For Chip, it’s aggressive cab driver Hildy (Alysha Umphress) and for Ozzie, it’s the very-much-engaged, but still on the prowl, Claire (Elizabeth Stanley).

Director John Rando carefully balances the show’s diverging and converging storylines as well as its disparate elements overall. At one moment, On the Town is just a big old fat valentine to New York; at another, it’s satire of the city and its denizens; and then, there are its screwball comedy moments. Of course, as the show was originally adapted from Jerome Robbins’ ballet, Fancy Free, there’s loads of dance, which has been expertly choreographed by Joshua Bergasse and when danced by Fairchild (of New York City Ballet), there are moments of breathtaking beauty and grace to be found on stage.

The same can be said of the music overall. The production uses the show’s original orchestrations with its whopping 28 pieces, a bonanza of musicians by today’s Broadway standards, and as the music cascades up and out of the pit, it sounds as big, brash and buoyant as the fairytale New York the show depicts.

All of this is enough for audiences to lose themselves in this frolicsome tuner, and to, most likely, not notice that the performances are about as varied as the show itself. There are some utterly delightful turns, like Johnson’s warmly goofball Midwesterner Chip, and Alves’ edgy Ozzie. Umphress brings just the right amount of charming coarseness to her work as Hildy, and as mentioned, Fairchild dances like a dream. She also happens to be about as wholesome and fetching as a Kewpie doll that someone might win at Coney Island (where the show eventually lands).

Other performances, though, are wanting. Yazbeck, who like Fairchild, dances up a storm, overplays Gaby’s hangdog simplicity, and as a result, the performance comes across as bland. At the other end of the spectrum is Jackie Hoffman, who strenuously overplays her multiple roles, including Ivy’s strict, alcohol-fueled singing teacher.

Such problems though ultimately disappear when balanced against the show’s bounties, which extend to the physical production. Thanks to the excellent work of scenic and projection designer Beowulf Boritt, costume designer Jess Goldstein, and lighting designer Jason Lyons, On the Town looks like a vintage postcard that’s sprung to life: the ones where pastels take on a wonderful, otherworldly vibrancy, visually proclaiming one of Comden and Green’s best-known lyrics: “It’s a helluva town!”

---- Andy Propst

On the Town plays at the Lyric Theatre (213 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: onthetownbroadway.com.