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On the Town, Leonard Bernstein’s almost maniacally upbeat World War II musical about three sailors’ romances during a 24-hour shore leave in the Big Apple, has a large enough cultural footprint that it seems impossible that this thing has only been revived on Broadway three times since its initial run, which ended six months after the war did.
Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s 1949 movie version replaced much of Bernstein’s score (why?) and axed two of the stage musical’s best songs. It also starred Kelly and Frank Sinatra and was shot on location in New York City instead of—well, in addition to—the MGM backlot, so let’s call it a wash. I suspect I am not the only Gen X-er whose first exposure to On The Town came from one of The Simpsons’ better song parodies, “Springfield, Springfield.”
But even that loving homage is now 25 years old. The sexual politics of Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s book are such that playing the show straight introduces a gently ironic effect. (One suspects this might have been the case in 1944, too.) So Olney artistic director Jason Loewith has wisely abstained from putting a hat on a hat and focuses his energies on an On The Town as libidinous and tuneful and hokey as you might hope.
Ringers Tracy Lynn Olivera and Bobby Smith lead a murderer’s row of big-room singers, playing horny sailor-abducting cabbie Brunhilde “Hildy” Esterhazy and frigid middle-aged judge Pitkin W. Bridgework, respectively. Pitkin must reckon with the fact that his fiancee, Claire De Loone—an anthropologist studying early man—can’t keep her highly educated hands off one of the sailors. As Claire, Rachel Zampelli gets to sing one of those sublime songs the movie omitted, the wistful ballad “Some Other Time.” She’s one of several cast members who’ve made such strong impressions in previous dramatic roles—Evan Casey, who plays Chip, the sailor Hildy violently seduces, is another—that to see them in a frothy confection like this is a delightful surprise.
These secondary couplings are more fun than the show’s primary romantic pursuit, wherein sailor Gabey, played by Rhett Guter, becomes smitten with “Miss Turnstiles,” a woman on a subway poster, and devotes his 24 hours of freedom to finding her. That Comden and Green chose to reward his insanity by having him locate the poster model, a “cooch dancer” named Ivy Smith, remains the most baffling of their calculations. But that doesn’t matter. This production’s Ivy, Claire Rathbun, is winning and likeable, and an elegant dancer to boot. Her ballet with Guter—the show was “inspired by an idea by Jerome Robbins,” after all—is one of the few moments when Tara Jeanne Vallee’s graceful choreography is a foreground element. It’s a welcome pause in a show that’s otherwise antic and, for its era, plot-heavy. So you’ll stay for the dancing, but you should go for the songs: “New York, New York,” “Lonely Town,” and “I Can Cook, Too” are all-timers, undimmed by the passage of 75 years.
To July 22 at 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. $54–$84. (301) 924-3400. olneytheatre.org.