Two years after its initial sell-out run in 2005, English National Opera's production of Bernstein's On the Town has bounded back into the Coliseum with all the vitality and exuberance of Broadway at its best. The company has lent the piece its full resources, with a cast of fifty-seven and an orchestra of forty-eight satisfying Bernstein's ideal original performance conditions. But ENO's production is not an exhumation of a neglected piece for academic reasons: its lavish approach is entirely in the spirit of giving the work its due. And in so doing, the company teaches many a plastic-sounding West End musical how visceral the genre can be if performed with sufficient orchestral resources.
On the Town came out of an earlier collaboration between Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins, the one-act ballet Fancy Free. It depicted three sailors who have a day of 'shore leave' and follows their antics. Then the designer Oliver Smith encouraged them to revisit the subject for a full-length Broadway musical, On the Town, which was written and rehearsed between June and December 1944.
Jude Kelly's vibrant production astutely picks up on the atmosphere in which the piece was written - namely, the height of the Second World War - and foregrounds the seriousness of the story (though never to the expense of entertainment). The three sailors - Gabey, Chip and Ozzie - have 'just one day' of leave in New York in which to see all the sights and find three girls to take on a date that night. The story follows in particular Gabey's search for the fantastical figure known as 'Miss Turnstiles', with whom he falls in love on seeing her picture in the subway; Chip and Ozzie go round the city trying to find her for Gabey (to thank him for saving their lives during a battle) but are sidetracked by the comically-named characters Brunnhilde Esterhazy (known as 'Hildy') and Claire de Loone, respectively.
In Kelly's production, we eventually realise (along with the characters) that the sailors' desire to 'pick up a date' is flawed - not because of the impossibility of their falling in love (which they do, in fact) but because they simply don't have enough time to see their relationships through. Kelly has all kinds of ingenious gestures to communicate the fact that time is limited and, indeed, life is fragile; a particularly telling recurring gesture is people reading newspapers whose headlines tell of 'three ships sunk' and more than five hundred people killed at sea. And just as the show begins with the sailors' optimistic chorus of 'New York, New York' as they set out on a day of unknown adventure, it ends with Gabey, Chip and Ozzie returning more sombrely to the ship and crossing paths with three other sailors who sing the same song and will have roughly the same experience. This is a sobering tale of the strain of life in the armed forces and the realism of war, which even resonates with events in the world today.
But Kelly doesn't let this drag the tone down too much - far from it. The dialogue is hilariously witty and often side-splitting, with a memorable cameo from comedienne June Whitfield, who plays the drunken singing teacher Madame Maude P. Dilly and exits to top up her hipflask at one point with the words 'I'll be back before you can say "Jack Daniels"'. Robert Jones' economical designs do an exceptional job of conjuring up the locations by means of fire escapes, a functioning New York taxicab (pictured) and a giant dinosaur skeleton; Mark Henderson's lighting design, revived by Kevin Sleep and Ian Jackson French also play a big part in the success of the staging, most strikingly in the depiction of the New York subway.
If there's one criticism, it's that the singing of the sailors in particular is underpowered (in spite of amplification), and several of the other characters have intermittent problems with pitching. Yet their performances are all so exuberant that it matters very little, to me at least. And the dance element is exemplary: Robbins' expressive choreography has been revised by Stephen Mear and both advances the story and intensifies emotions. I found the show's fourth ballet, a complex three-movement narrative entitled 'Subway Ride and Imaginary Coney Island - The Great Lover Displays Himself - Pas de deux', utterly entrancing. Here, Gabey's despair at having lost his lover Ivy (Miss Turnstiles) and his fantasy of being reunited with her is expressed in the most sensual dance and music.
It was the highpoint in an evening that also includes engaging renditions of songs such as 'I Can Cook, Too' (a comic piece for Caroline O'Connor's belting portrayal of Hildy), 'Lonely Town' and 'Lucky to be Me' (both sung with sensitivity by Joshua Dallas as Gabey, in spite of the caveats expressed above). Ryan Molloy acted and danced with agility and imagination as Ozzie, even if his singing during the duet 'Carried Away' paled next to Lucy Schaufer's well-projected Claire, while Sean Palmer's Chip was similarly successful in theatrical rather than musical terms. Royal Ballet School-trained Helen Anker danced and acted to perfection as Ivy; one could see why Gabey was so enchanted with her. The best singing came from veteran opera singer Andrew Shore as Pitkin and Rodney Clarke playing five different roles in one show. Neither of them needed amplification, in fact, and would probably have shone even more without it.
The biggest and rarest treat of all was to hear Bernstein's score performed by the Orchestra of English National Opera in their most resplendent form. New York positively levitated out of the orchestra pit thanks to their full-on commitment to the task; conductor Simon Lee gave of his all and was rewarded with playing of which Bernstein would surely have been proud.
In all, a triumphant night of classy entertainment which is not to be missed.
Two songs from On the Town ('I Can Cook Too' and 'Some Other Time') performed by Nancy Walker (the original Hildy) are featured in Sepia Records' exceptional new CD release, Nancy Walker: My Square Laddie/I Can Cook Too. Copies can be bought directly from www.sepiarecords.com.