Director Jason Loewith has assembled a to-die-for cast for Olney’s snappy On the Town (★★★★). And the buck stops with that onstage ensemble, including the orchestra, since the production is staged and paced pretty much like a revue of the show’s fabulous, often hilarious, songs.
That’s not a bad thing given the lush, evocative Leonard Bernstein compositions and quick-witted lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, sung by the likes of Tracy Lynn Olivera, whom I’d happily hear sing a bus schedule. The songs are sewn together by an adorable book by Comden and Green that provides great moments for a versatile comic talent like Bobby Smith, in a handful of roles, to keep the show sailing from tune to tune.
The dancing, choreographed by Tara Jeanne Vallee, is vigorous, though most effective in the balletic passages that express the romance in Bernstein’s score. The same can be said of music director and conductor Christopher Youstra’s On the Town orchestra, which strikes a poignant chord when slowed down for a beautiful “Lonely Town” and the second-act Pas de Deux. The band sounds less cohesive swinging to Bernstein’s jazz.
The presence of the orchestra onstage, big-band style, adds to the sense of revue, as do Court Watson’s flattish sets. The scenic design doesn’t offer a lot visually, but it does suggest the period and scale of a fairy tale ’40s New York City. And the scenery flies on and off stage, so the story — three Navy sailors on shore leave for a day — stays fleet on its feet.
Chip (Evan Casey), Ozzie (Sam Ludwig), and Gabey (Rhett Guter) hit the Brooklyn Navy Yard, bound in friendship by battle and loaded with seaman swagger. Each of them hailing from small town America, they arrive with fresh, bright eyes for the big city, ready to conquer a few dames.
Casey transmits Chip’s eagerness to explore every inch of the town, and Ludwig conveys Ozzie’s lust for cozying up to whichever local love goddess he can lay his hands on. They are matched, if not eclipsed, for joie de vivre by the ladies they happen to find: Chip’s cabbie squeeze, Hildy Esterhazy, given a full head of steam and voluminous voice by Olivera, and Ozzie’s amorous anthropologist Claire De Loone, given a sardonic spin by Rachel Zampelli.
Rhett Guter’s Gabey is something of the odd man out with this lot. Guter is a convincing mope when Gabey’s discouraged, but it’s hard to see in him as the hero and inspiration his mates and the script otherwise make him out to be. He is, however, believably lovestruck over a girl whose picture he sees on the subway, Miss Turnstiles for the month of June, Ivy Smith (Claire Rathbun).
Guter and Rathbun dance divinely together, and he sings with a sturdy baritone that captures longing. But his charisma is swallowed up sometimes by the sailor suit. Rathbun also could stand to boost her wattage, particularly in the vocal department. Still, she expresses character in her graceful movement, and she serves as a good straight woman to comedic whirlwind Donna Migliaccio, as Ivy’s dipsomaniac diva music instructor, Madame Dilly. Migliaccio makes Dilly’s every gesture pop, swaying to and fro, flask in hand, in Rosemary Pardee’s fun yet elegant costumes. Then, she gets to dance through a hysterical montage of outfits as club singers Diana Dream and Dolores Dolores.
Comden and Green went to the trouble of coming up with amusing names for these characters, and Pardee created amusing ways to dress them. The wardrobe looks great on everyone, from the leads to the chorus, a few of whom also stand out for adding choice bits of atmosphere.
It’s an embarrassment of riches cast-wise, with Smith dead-on as Claire’s very understanding fiancé Pitkin W. Bridgework, and Suzanne Lane earning extended ovations in the featured role of Hildy’s sneezy roomie Lucy Schmeeler. Even randomly recurring subway riders Flossie (Ashleigh King) and her friend (Amanda Kaplan) feel fully inhabited.
The direction keeps the baton passing smoothly, from pairing to pairing, song to dance, as the sailor boys’ respective love stories build to an ending that, well, sneaks up abruptly and without all the satisfaction one might anticipate. That might be exactly like the feeling that hits a sailor in the last minute of a 24-hour leave on the town — in which case, well done.
On the Town runs to July 22 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. Tickets are $64 to $84. Call 301-924-3400, or visit olneytheatre.org.