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by Michael Portantiere

Wonderful Town

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    Wonderful Town

    The Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical On the Town has something in common with, of all things, the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess: Both are classics of the American musical theater but are extremely difficult to do well. So whenever a worthy staging of either of these works comes along, celebration is in order, even if said staging is less than 100% perfect -- probably an unattainable goal at any rate. Which is my rather drawn-out way of saying: All hail On the Town at the Paper Mill Playhouse!

    Consider for a moment the enormous challenges in mounting this show about three WW-II sailors on 24-hour leave in New York City. First of all, the gentlemen cast in the leading roles of gobs Ozzie, Gabey, and Chip have to dance well enough that they could be soloists in a world-class ballet company. Additionally, all three of them have to be able to sing well -- exceptionally so in the case of Gabey, who has two gorgeous, nearly operatic solo ballads. On top of all that, they have to be strong enough actors to put their stamp on three very colorful characters and to land the show's humor, which still has the potential to delight but is tough to play because its style is very much that of a bygone era.

    At Paper Mill, the most awesome of the three sailors is Gabey in the person of Tyler Hanes, whose dancing is as gorgeous as his million-dollar face. Hanes sings well enough to do justice to the yearning "Lonely Town" and the joyous "Lucky to Be Me," and his acting as the lovestruck Gabey is sincere, natural, and unaffected. Jeffrey Schecter is terrific as Ozzie, bringing a Three Stooges-style delivery to his dialogue and skillfully creating a vivid, engaging personality through specific body language. (Does his name ring a bell? That's probably because Schecter won raves as Mike in the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line.) Finally, although Brian Shepard misses some laughs as the sightseeing-obsessed Chip, he has a Ray Bolger-esque quality that's well suited to the role, and his dancing is first-rate.

    These tars are superbly partnered by their gals. Kelly Sullivan brings great comic timing, sparkling stage presence, and a pretty soprano to her turn as Claire DeLoone, while the lovely Yvette Tucker dances like a dream as Ivy Smith. And if you think the tiny powerhouse Jennifer Cody sounds like ideal casting for the part of the man-hungry lady cab driver Hildy, you're right. In a role created by Nancy Walker, Cody knocks her laugh lines out of the park, and her show-stopping rendition of "I Can Cook, Too" is at once sexy and hilarious.

    With one exception, the production's excellence extends to the featured roles and the ensemble. Tari Kelly is adorable as Hildy's hapless roommate, Lucy Schmeeler, who just can't stop sneezing. Michael Scirrotto is a stitch as Rajah Bimmy and several other characters whom the sailors and their girls encounter in the midst of their adventures. As Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework, Bill Nolte is the first actor in my experience to actually get laughs from the rather thin running joke that Pitkin "understands" his fiancee Claire's dismissive treatment of him. (It's hard for a doormat to be funny, but Nolte does the trick -- and he sings in a sonorous baritone, to boot!) The members of the chorus dance up a storm in a myriad of styles ranging from ballet to boogie-woogie, and every last one of them oozes personality.

    Unfortunately and surprisingly, Harriet Harris -- a hoot in Thoroughly Modern Millie and absolutely fabulous in every other role I've seen her tackle -- shoots wide of the mark as Mme. Dilly. She starts off well with a funny vocalizing bit but then loses control, overplaying the character's drunkenness by slurring her words to the point of unintelligibility, and coming across as pathetic rather than amusing. A rare miscalculation from one of our best actresses.

    All this talent wouldn't be enough to make On the Town work if not for the superb choreography of Patti Colombo and the overall excellent direction of Bill Berry, the latter a mainstay of theater in Seattle but hopefully henceforth a player on the New York scene. One huge mistake often made by producers of "dance shows" is to hire director-choreographers who are very good at choreographing but not very good at directing actors. Thank heaven, no such error was made here: Berry keeps On the Town moving briskly and generally exhibits a firm grasp of style required, even if he hasn't been able to help the performers nail every last one of the jokes; and Colombo's dances are thrilling, giving a nod to the immortal work of Jerome Robbins while fully displaying her own vision and extraordinary talent.

    Music director Tom Helm expertly leads a large orchestra through Bernstein's iconic score. (Is there a more exciting opening number than "New York, New York" in the canon? I don't think so! And those dream ballets? Divine!) Scenic designer Walt Spanger, lighting designer Tom Sturge, and costumer David C. Woolard do A-list work to complement the efforts of the director, the choreographer, and the performers. I don't even want to think about how much this show would cost if it were on Broadway, but at any rate, that's not where you'll find it.

    If ever a train or car ride to Millburn, New Jersey was worth the time and effort, this is the occasion. The Paper Mill Playhouse, which was in great danger of closing its doors forever just a few years ago, has gifted us with a wonderful production of a beloved show that has defeated many other estimable artists. So here are three heartfelt cheers to everyone involved.

    Published on Tuesday, November 17, 2009

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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