Capital City's "On the Town" is a Helluva Ride
Strangely enough, the classic musical On the Town opens with a lullabye. That was one of many surprises in Capital City Theatre’s production, which opened officially last night and runs through Sunday, June 2 in the Capitol Theater at Overture Center. If starting a show with a sleepy longshoreman singing about a baby that kept him up for much of the previous night seems counterintuitive for a production that often bursts with energy, you’re right. But it also sets the stage for a night of stark contrasts in tone, tempo, and even genre. Cleverly conceived by director/choreographer Josh Walden and beautifully executed by members of the Madison Ballet and professional veterans of Broadway and regional stages, this production of On the Town compensates for the show’s paper-thin plot by performing each scene, song and dance number with exceptional artistry.
As the trio of sailors on leave in 1940s New York City for 24-hours, Eddie Gutierrez (Gabey), Joshua K. A. Johnson (Chip) and Nicolas Dromard (Ozzie) each shine in their roles, as a lovesick farm boy, a nerdy tourist and an over-confident lothario, respectively. They really deliver on the show’s only hummable song -- “New York, New York.” And in eight small character parts, from that grumpy longshoreman to a frustrated archeologist to a severely repressed man of high society, the incredibly versatile Christopher deProphetis also deserves top billing. They acquit themselves handily as true triple threats -- each demonstrating strong singing voices with dramatically large ranges, a knack for broad, musical theater characterizations and stunning dance moves, from soaring heel clicks to balletic spins.
While deProphetis excels in comic relief, it’s Gutierrez who steals the audience’s heart as a shy, small town guy who falls hard for the glamorous “Miss Turnstile” (the petite and pert Paige Sabo) after glimpsing her picture in the subway. His mournful “Lonely Town” and contrasting “Lucky to Be Me” are highlights of the show, musically and emotionally.
As the girls who are game to partner up with the Navy recruits for a day, Lizzie Cutrupi (Hildy, the forward cab driver), Abby Nichols (Claire, the deceptively bookish expert on prehistoric man) and Sabo (Ivy, the struggling actress and beauty queen) are also top-notch. Sabo is a gifted dancer whose pas de deux with Gutierrez are breathtaking and Nichols’s barely contained lust -- that keeps slipping out of her tightly laced, scientist facade -- is impressive. But it’s recent Oklahoma City University grad Cutrupi whose energy and sizzling sex appeal steals every scene. Her songs “Come Up to My Place,” and “I Can Cook Too,” are an irresistible advertisement for her multiple charms. It’s no wonder Chip abandons sightseeing in favor of a tour of Hildy’s apartment.
Beyond the individual talent of the leads, the show succeeds on director Walden’s ambitious and inventive choreography, and stylized approach to the chestnut of a musical. Dance breaks are many, and approached with dreamy reverence, that shows off the talent of the trained ballerinas. Crowd scenes are delightful and exaggerated exercises in quirky movement. Characters are consistently played for their cartoonishness. An interstitial gag involving a cranky old lady subway passenger (Gail Becker, in one of many kooky roles) and an increasing number of policemen is played as high melodrama. Instead of fighting the inherent silliness of the show, Walden embraces and accents it so every scene is full of whimsy and surprise.
The perfect backdrop for these caricatures, Keith Pitts’s scenic design frames the action with a cityscape of famous buildings in New York, painted like a colorized black and white photo. Two projection screens are also used effectively, contrasting a scratched two-tone picture of a navy vessel in the foreground with kitschy, illustrated postcards that easily set the scene far upstage. Karen Brown-Larimore’s costumes (including dozens of matching ensembles for the dancers) reflect both the time period and the color pallete of the production flawlessly. Every hat, glove and shoe is perfectly on point, giving the show a heightened sense of unity and theatricality.
Meanwhile, the 27-piece orchestra, led by Capital City’s Artistic Director Andrew Abrams, provides a lush musical foundation for all of the action onstage.
But even these terrific production elements can’t fully disguise that the show is dated. Fans of modern musicals may be surprised at the simplicity of the characters and the number of songs that are neither memorable, nor do they move the story forward.
Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town debuted in 1944, based loosely on Jerome Robbins’s idea for ballet called Fancy Free, which explains the show’s emphasis on dance over other elements. The feel-good premise of girl-crazy, but somehow wholesome, sailors on leave for one day in the American marvel, New York City, probably felt like a lovely escape for the musical’s first audiences, as World War II was winding down.
And it must have been hugely reassuring that three gainfully employed women (two in traditionally male professions) are eager and willing to abandon their work -- and in one case, a dull, aristocratic fiance -- in favor of spending a day giving in to their wild, sexual sides with three brave, fighting men. To reinforce the optics of traditional gender roles, there are plenty of “cheesecake” scenes -- including a beauty pageant competition for the title of “Miss Turnstile,” a conga line, harem dancers and nightclub chorus girls who all jiggle and shimmie their way across the stage in swimsuits or bikini tops. It is practically a prequel to the movie “An American in Paris,” which also involves a GI who falls in love at first sight, chasing a girl all over a big city in search of the perfect match. (Not coincidentally, both On the Town and American In Paris were ideal vehicles for Gene Kelly and his blend of male charisma and exceptional dance.)
Does this take away from the fun of On the Town? Not really. This production celebrates the material for what it is -- a cotton candy confection from Coney Island, on the centennial of Bernstein’s birth.