Given that “West Side Story” is often considered the greatest musical ever written, odd that its predecessor “On the Town,” the first show to unite choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, is done so infrequently.
Part of the reason is that the seamless line between music and drama achieved in “West Side Story” was still a long way off in “On the Town,” which began life as the ballet “Fancy Free.” That pedigree is never far from the surface of the show, as dance tends to intrude on the narrative, such as it is, and often for its own sake.
Bernstein’s score is meticulously well-crafted, but Bernstein was still in search of his own style, the music often coming off as Gershwin meets Shostakovich. When MGM made the movie version, they gutted most of Bernstein’s score as being too “operatic” in favor of new tunes by MGM house tunesmiths. Given the popular success of that film, a Frank Sinatra-Gene Kelly pairing, people are often expecting the movie tunes in the stage production.
The work as it was originally conceived and executed seventy years ago while World War II was still in full swing, was a wartime view of how to cram a lifetime of experiences during a twenty-four-hour shore leave. Three sailors meet three women in “New York, New York,” of course, but time is the enemy as everyone knows that the guys will all be sailing off to God knows where, perhaps never to return, in less than a day.
Instead of that being dealt with in a serious manner, Betty Comden and Adolph Green give us vaudeville-like comedy that was quite risqué for 1944, women flirting with men quite openly and desperately, sailors who have barely left home trying to grow up in a hurry while experiencing the Big Apple for a first and likely final time, all with the clock ticking.
Marriott has decided to stage this seventieth-anniversary version as a comedy and dance show, not a music show. Several sections of the score have been cut, including the overture and the workman’s bluesy “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet” that intones the day.
Additionally, while there are brass and doubling wind players, the strings are synthesized, a no-no for a show as orchestral as this. In fact, on the Friday night of opening week, the regular conductor was not even on hand, which affected the timing of the music, particularly in Act I.
The singing, with a couple of exceptions, is what would be expected for leads primarily hired as dancers, which is where this cast and this show excels. Choreographer Alex Sanchez makes no attempt to clone Jerome Robbins, an impossible task in any case, and creates a style that is vintage in its outlook without being afraid to be contemporary. Still, some of the Fosse-isms for a work supposed to take place in the mid-1940s do serve as a jolting reminder of another era.
Director David H. Bell has wisely chosen to keep the comedic tone of the original show, which does stand up quite well even decades later, even if at times, the characters and the audience need to be reminded that there is tension and serious business lurking behind the funny stuff. (Dennis Polkow)
Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, (847)634-0200, marriotttheatre.com. Through October 12.