On The Town (オン・ザ・タウン)

オン・ザ・タウン (On The Town)

9/28/14 (Sun), Tokyo

At long last, On The Town reached Japan. It featured three pop stars from the super-popular music group V6 (managed by the legendary Johnny’s Office), which was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the show’s success was ensured from the minute it was announced: apparently, getting three of these guys together for this period of time is a near miracle given their sundry activities individually and as a group, and the show was sold out for the entire run before it even opened. So commercially this was a gold mine. On the other hand, this was clearly a Johnny’s crowd, with an audience that was 95% young and female. I haven’t seen such a female-heavy auditorium since Takarazuka. There was no room whatsoever for fans of Broadway musicals who may have wanted to see this Bernstein classic for the first time. It didn’t matter to this audience what they were seeing as long as their idols were there. So it pretty much establishes this show as a star vehicle, a very different approach from the US. Whether it will enter the repertory, and whether anyone would risk doing it now with normal musical actors, is an open question. (The Producers, which had two of the same actors, has never been revived despite a sold-out run.) And it suffered big-time musically (see below), though that didn’t make a jot of a difference to the fans here.

The production itself was lots of fun. The director/choreographer, Bill Barnes, kept the pace up nicely and got laughs in all the right places. I was surprised at the opening, when he rushed the stars on with little fanfare; it seemed a wasted opportunity. But things picked up quickly from that point. The choreography was engaging if not overly adventurous. He showed a good sense of humor in Ivy’s intro scene and the use of opera singers and actors and such in the Carnegie Hall sequence, and the dancers were top notch. The “Times Square Ballet” was nice as well. But the “Lonely Town” and especially “Imaginary Coney Island” scenes were flat, maybe because of the limitations of the lead guys. (I found out later that the Gabey injured himself in rehearsal, forcing the choreographer to restage those scenes at short notice. He did a good job of working around that, but there was a palpable lack of energy.)

They obviously didn’t spend much money on the surprisingly barren set, which was basically just a set of steps framed by one of those arches they seem to like here. It reminded me of the barebones Encores version. That does provide an extra dimension for the dancing, which the choreographer made good use of. They relied instead on occasional drops and backs, like the subway, and large pieces, like the taxi and dinosaur bones, to spice things up. There was some nice use of simple video projections to illustrate movement in the taxi and subway scenes. Still, it gave the impression of a low-budget show, which didn’t really match the sense of occasion with these superstars.

Those stars have good comic sense and a confident delivery, which was a big plus. While they’re not dancers, they do move very well, and their energy level never dropped. They looked like they were having fun, which was infectious. The one problem, and it was a big one in this show, was their singing. Bernstein’s music can’t be done halfway, and none of these guys was up to the task in vocal power, range or expressiveness. Chip (長野博) and Ozzie (井ノ原快彦) got away with their numbers through an over-the-top rendering, but Gabey (坂本昌行), who had the big ballads, was totally out of his league. I remember being blown away by the score when I saw the musical for the first time way back when – I only knew the movie at the time, so the stage show was a revelation. No one in today’s audience is likely to have the same experience. There was an eye-opening moment at the end when the three new sailors came running out and gave a strong, vivid rendition of “New York, New York”. I was startled by the stark contrast with the rest of the evening. It made crystal clear what had been missing. I won’t be expecting any cast album from this. Still, their clowning and enthusiasm made the creaky script work, so the pattern is well set for other Johnny’s guys if they want to take it.

The women were all excellent both vocally and acting-wise. Ivy (真飛聖), a former Takarazuka star, avoided making her role too cute, which by itself is an accomplishment for a Japanese actress. She was tall with great legs (must have been a male-role specialist in her previous job), and her dancing was more-than-competent with style and character. Claire (樹里咲穂) and Hildy (the ever-reliable Sylvia Grab) both threw themselves into their roles with gusto. As with the guys, it probably helped that they mainly had comic numbers; the more rueful “Some Other Time” did not come off as well, though they were admittedly hampered with poor Japanese lyrics. Still, they all had solid voices and lifted the material. The production was lucky to have them. The other actors, especially Claire’s fiancé (who did a superb “I Understand”) and the music teacher, were also right in the spirit of the piece. If there had been no songs, the cast would have been perfect.

The translation of the script was fluid and fun. The lyrics, though (by the same translator), were a different story. There were some nice ideas scattered through, like the substitution of Anything Goes for Tobacco Road (great choice) in “Come Up to My Place”, and that song, “I Understand” and the nightclub songs were terrific. But most were poorly thought out. I’m not sure the translator always understood what the songs were trying to say. “Ya Got Me” and “Lonely Town” seemed rambling, and “Lucky To Be Me” sounded like it was translated rather than written (“I’m so lucky to be me” came off as “僕は自分であってよかった” – count the syllables). In “Some Other Time”, my favorite from this score, the characters are effectively saying goodbye without admitting it since, with the boys going off to war, they don’t really know if they’ll ever meet again. The lyrics here were clunky and ordinary, and didn’t have the bittersweet atmosphere that was needed. Bummer.

Overall the show was entertaining, and while the sailors weren’t anywhere near what was needed vocally, they did a good job of sustaining the show’s verve and humor. The director kept things moving smoothly, the book and staging got big laughs, and the dances were varied and creative. The music and ballet were secondary in this production, which is a shame but irrelevant to this audience. I doubt anyone came away singing the songs, even the catchy title number, given those voices and lyrics. Still, it was a fun evening out, and each sailor has his moment in the sun, which must have made the audience ecstatic. So the viewers definitely got their ¥12,500 worth. I would see it again and recommend it to others, and hope it comes back. Can’t help being regretful at what might have been, though.

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