Friday, June 03, 2016
On The Town with the SF Symphony
The San Francisco Symphony produced a magical performance of the 1944 Leonard Bernstein musical On The Town last week. Intelligently staged by the LA-based Chromatic creative collective, it starred most of the New York cast from a well-reviewed 2014 Broadway revival, and the orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas gave one of the best performances of popular showtune music I have ever heard. Listening to the ambitious score played live, with the orchestra surrounded by brilliant dancers and singers, was an unusual treat that gave the musical an unexpected depth I never suspected.
The biggest problem with the show is the book by the writers/performers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who starred in the original 1944 production. The tale of three Navy sailors on a 24-hour leave in New York during World War Two is told as a series of cartoonish revue skits that have not aged particularly well. In the SF Symphony production, the solution was to have Amanda Green (the daughter of Adolph) and David Garrison (above) as narrators and occasional bit part players, dispensing with most of the corny dialogue altogether. Green and Garrison were terrific, the meandering plot stayed clear, and the music was allowed to shine.
The musical started as a wildly successful ballet called Fancy Free by Jerome Robbins for the New York City Ballet with music by Bernstein. I saw Fancy Free a few years ago at the San Francisco Ballet and found it appalling because the sailors trying to get laid came across closer to sexual harassers and borderline rapists than seductive sailors. On The Town upends that dynamic with strong women characters who choose which sailor they want, including Alysha Umphress as the taxi driver Hildy who grabs Jay Armstrong Johnson as the sailor Chip for a tour of the town and her bedroom (dancer Justin Genna on the floor is playing the taxi).
The 2014 Broadway revival was well reviewed, though a few critics noted that the production didn't allow for any darker shades, in a show whose subtext is three young men who are essentially cannon fodder, trying to cram a bit of life in before they are possibly killed. That omission was addressed head-on in this production, with the audience being greeted on entering Davies Hall by video projections of World War Two sailors loading battleship cannons, and the show started with the chorus on either side of the stage singing part of the National Anthem, which Amanda Green informed us was the custom before every Broadway performance during the war.
The set by MacMoc design was a stylized synthesis of New York skyscrapers and a battleship with characteristically brilliant, understated projections by Adam Larsen. The direction by James Darrah (above, talking to composer John Adams) was as good as his work on Peter Grimes for the SF Symphony a couple of years ago, which seemed hardly possible.
Chromatic's co-director, Peabody Southwell, not only designed the witty costumes for this production, but also played the chanteuse who appears in a succession of different nightclubs. In a funny running gag, everywhere the sailors and their girlfriends go over the course of a late night, she is singing a blues song, I Wish I Was Dead, in various musical styles depending on the theme of the club. Southwell looked like she was having a ball and did a great job with the musical parodies.
Besides the 2014 Broadway cast, there were a couple of luxury replacements, including Merola Opera Director Sheri Greenawald above as the venal, alcoholic singing teacher Madame Dilly and the great mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as the anthropologist Claire who ditches her rich fiance for a day and night with the sailor Ozzie played by Clyde Alves. As that rich fiance who keeps being stuck with their nightclub tabs, the bass-baritone Shuler Hensley was funny and sounded superb.
Best of all, this production made clear what an exciting dance show On The Town can be. Megan Fairchild as Ivy aka Miss Turnstiles is a ballerina from the New York City Ballet and she was ably supported by Tony Yazbeck as her wooing sailor Gabey and a squad of five male dancers who were superb. It was so much fun to hear the Symphony play ballet music, which they do quite often, and actually see dancers on the stage for a change. It would be interesting seeing these creative forces tackle something like Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. (Pictured above left to right are narrators Amanda Green and David Garrison, Tony Yazbeck as Gabey, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, Megan Fairchild as Ivy, Alysha Umphress as Hildy, Jay Armstrong Johnson as Chip, and Isabel Leonard as Claire. All photos are by Stefan Cohen except for Darrah/Adams and Sheri Greenawald which are mine.)