On the Town (ENO)

On the Town

23 April 2007 (Mon), ENO

A revival of ENO’s well-received production from last year. With an orchestra of 66 and a cast of 40-something, this was a major staging on a scale pretty much impossible in a Broadway theatre. (The ticket price reflected this at £76 or around $150.) The cast was a mixture of opera singers, ballet dancers and Broadway/West End actors, and choreographed in a combination of Broadway and classical dance. I hadn’t actually seen the show since a fantastic production back in Washington D.C. in the 1980s, one of my most memorable theatrical experiences ever, so I was watching closely.

The production was as big and brash as anyone could want for the most part, but there was a decisive shift in point of view that was a bit disconcerting if not entirely surprising. As usual with British productions of Broadway musical classics, the director imposed a “darker” vision on the material. The show opened with a line of sailors behind a scrim at back evidently going off to war; that is, the first image is not the newly arrived sailors running excitedly into the big city, but the older sailors heading to an uncertain fate. In the D.C. production as well as the movie, both by American directors, the immediate mood was excitement as the sailors wasted no effort in making the most of their time in NY, however short. The briefness of their shore leave simply heightened the sense of adventure, and the air fairly pulsated with an energy that pretty much defined NY. It was all great fun and nothing more. In the British interpretation, the idea was that the soldiers had only a fleeting period of fun before they had to face reality again; in other words, the joy was framed within an element of sadness or regret that the soldiers may not be coming home again. This theme was reiterated in some of the dances throughout the show. It reminded me of the Japanese and the cherry blossoms: rather than appreciating the simple beauty of the blossoms at that moment, it’s the ephemeral nature of the blossoms, the fact that they’ll wilt and die in only a week, that makes them beautiful.

The only justification for this viewpoint might be the song “Some Other Time”, where the singers sing hopefully about their next meeting knowing that in fact they may never see each other again. But I’m not sure that this should be the play’s overall theme. It goes against the dynamism of the music and the farcical tone of the book, and gives the material a weight that it really can’t bear. It wasn’t quite the British Oklahoma, where the director just didn’t seem to believe the American can-do spirit built into the show, but it was a bit off all the same. It was basically an interesting idea that didn’t pay off.

The director sometimes seemed eager to keep things moving, even when a bit of stillness might have been better. The opening was one case, when the guy singing the “I Feel Like I’m Not Out Of Bed Yet” number was walking around, showing folks his family photos and the like. I would have kept him in a resting, dreamier state. But she did well with the many big scenes like those on the subway, and the pace overall was appropriately bouncy. She threw in some scenes that are normally cut, most notably a song sung to Gabey by his two companions. It’s an attractive number and was nice to hear, but probably does drag things out a bit longer than necessary.

The performers were all perfectly fine, though I’d be hard pressed to name them now. The one standout was Caroline O’Connor, who was a terrific Hildy. It helps that this is such a showy role, but she definitely made the most of it. As it turns out, she’s a great dancer, which I never knew, and the choreographer took full advantage of it. For some reason, I also liked the guy playing the put-upon husband, a part I don’t usually take much notice of. I especially enjoyed his rendition of “I Understand”, which he managed to make really funny.

The set wasn’t particularly notable, which I presume was a function of bad design rather than cost-consciousness. There was a big steel beam extending across the stage that would rise and fall at times, most memorably with Chip sitting on top as his dream was danced below him. There was nothing like that great moment in Washington when the skyscrapers leaped up from below. Seems like a missed opportunity with that huge stage.

The dances by Stephen Mear were fantastic, probably the best work of his that I’ve seen in a great combination of ballet and jazz/modern dance. He was helped by a very expressive actress in the part of Ivy. Even allowing for the darker tone of some numbers, I couldn’t have asked for more from the dances.

On the whole, while it wasn’t the ideal On The Town, it was definitely worth the trip. I really wish this show could get a thorough rewrite to replace the creaky book. The score, which I still think is Bernstein’s best, is just too good to throw away on this. Nevertheless, a fun night in the theater for sure.

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