The ENO is currently reviving Jude Kelly’s 2005 staging of Bernstein’s On The Town, with a crew of new leading men, but many of the supporting cast unchanged.
I enjoyed the show in 2005, and I enjoyed it just as much in 2007. Robert Jones’s simple steel girder set can look a bit odd at times (especially with interior scenes), but the large cast of singers and dancers and use of the full ENO orchestra makes up for that particular lack of spectacle.
The musical, which was also made into a film starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra (although much altered from the superior stage version), is set in New York in 1944. Three sailors have 24 hours shore leave in the Big Apple and they intend to use it wisely. Eventually they all end up with swell dames and get into various scrapes pursuing them, and that’s about it plot wise. It could certainly be said that Comden and Green’s book is a little thin, but this is a musical about the music. Leonard Bernstein’s superb score, mixing orchestral music with jazz and other popular musical styles of the time, can be majestic and funny both at the same time (New York, New York being the most famous song).
The male leads are decent enough, but it is the women who steal the show (and who have generally superior voices). The inimitable Caroline O’Connor plays eccentric taxi driver Hildy (short for Brunhilda) perfectly, in fine voice and on comic form. Alison Jiear also stands out, with her small role playing a series of nightclub singers, her voice is wonderful and her acting very amusing.
As with many musicals of the time, there is a strong dance and ballet element to the show (the show was first conceived of as a ballet). This includes some dream ballet scenes as well as big song and dance numbers. The choreography by Stephen Mear is very successful, fluently evoking a sense of the time.
My main criticism of the production is the costume design and scenic concept towards the end of the show. The action moves to the gaudy Coney Island, but instead of looking of the period like the rest of the show, we are treated to an luminous multi-colour display, looking more like a 1990’s rave than 1944 New York, with the chorus all in ludicrous almost glowing hats and gloves.
That aside, if you want some wonderful music, magnified by an equally wonderful orchestra (a rare sight, only possible outside of the commercial West End), this is the show for you. I must day that there is also a tinge of sadness at the fate of out heroes; who knows if they will see out the war to return to their sweethearts? I hope so.