On the Town

Bernstein
On the Town [Book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green based on an idea by Jerome Robbins; orchestrations by Hershy Kay, Don Walker, Elliott Jacoby, Bruce Coughlin and Ted Royal, with the composer]

Workman 1 – Willard W. White
Ozzie – Tim Howar
Chip – Adam Garcia
Gabey – Aaron Lazar
Ivy Smith – Helen Anker
Hildy Esterhazy – Caroline O’Connor
Claire de Loone – Lucy Schaufer
Madame Maude P. Dilly – Sylvia Syms
Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework – Andrew Shore
Lucy Schmeeler – Janine Duvitski
Diana Dream/Dolores Dolores/Little old lady – Alison Jiear
Announcer/Master of Ceremonies/Subway conductor/Dance contest judge – Rodney Clarke
Rajah Bimmy – Greg Winter

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Simon Lee

Jude Kelly – Director
Choreographer – Stephen Mear
Designer – Robert Jones
Mark Henderson – Lighting designer
Nick Lidster – Sound designer


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 12 March, 2005
Venue: Coliseum, London

A lot of unnecessary time has been taken up discussing whether English National Opera should be staging Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town”. Such digression suggests that the folly of pigeonholing remains rife and one wonders if some commentators have forgotten that Bernstein was one of the most important of classical musicians and, indeed, remains so given his legacy of recordings and numerous, outstanding compositions. The Musical is, in some quarters, regarded with snobbish contempt. No doubt there are many rank examples of the genre. One certainly is “Jerry Springer” – about which there has been much comment on the foul language and whether it is blasphemous or not, but little mention has been made about the dreadful music!

“On the Town” is described as “A musical comedy in Two Acts”, which is a misnomer. As in his later stage-works (“Candide”, “West Side Story”), Leonard Bernstein and his accomplices were redefining the genre: ‘music-theatre’ is altogether more apt. When “On the Town” was premiered on Broadway on 28 December 1944 (following an out-of-town run in Boston), Bernstein was but 26 (and had already famously replaced Bruno Walter for a New York Philharmonic concert). He wrote a score teeming with invention and individuality, one that displayed not only ‘genius’ but a guile based on his appreciation of music across the board; such musical pointers are not always within the gift of composers.

Given the quality of “On the Town” – albeit it’s not quite consistent enough to sustain the work as a whole, and is not quite on the level of his later music-theatre works – then certainly an opera house should stage it. It’s how it is done that’s more important. And ENO has produced “On the Town” wonderfully well – with respect, with thought, and with imagination. Anticipation that liberties might be taken proves groundless. Apart from some flickering lights, which are eyesores, there is much that is gratifying to look at; indeed, the various sets and costumes are splendid and the lighting is excellent (not too bright). Jude Kelly and her team have worked within the piece and complement it; maybe she should tackle some Wagner! The ENO Orchestra plays with admirable spirit and brilliance, and if the musicians can’t quite capture the innate pizzazz of American counterparts (such as on the composer’s own 1960 recording, Sony SK60538, or, for that matter, the LSO on Michael Tilson Thomas’s version, DG 437 516-2), there’s not much in it.

For ENO Simon Lee conducts with terrific energy and, more importantly, focus; and all credit to him for not allowing applause to dictate the flow of the work – he gets on with it and makes the audience catch up. Given the diverse, vignette nature of “On the Town” – and speech, song, and dance aspects – the conductor is the linchpin, and Lee is a tireless and perceptive advocate for a score that needs to be kept tight. Rightly the Overture that Bernstein didn’t compose is eschewed. The programme-book doesn’t list the orchestrators that assisted Bernstein; and the season-long credit of soloists, orchestra and chorus fails to mention whomever the superb orchestral saxophonist is. Martin Robertson, maybe?

The large cast (not all mentioned above) makes an outstanding ensemble and none of the individual contributions have any truck with scene-stealing. Quite why Willard White is engaged as ‘Workman 1’ is a mystery. He’s fine, but the role is about two minutes long (right at the beginning) and he’s not seen again. Furthermore, White is not singing in all the performances. When he’s not, ‘Workman 1’ is taken by Rodney Clarke who is in all the performances anyway in numerous guises. I can imagine fans of WWW being a little put out.

So, the show is about three sailors on a 24-hour pass and their various escapades in New York during this period. Characters come, go and return and the whole adds up to an enjoyable if slight story-line. The city’s citizens are a diverse bunch and have been cast between opera and non-opera singers and actors. Of the latter Sylvia Syms makes a cameo appearance as a ballet teacher who likes a tipple, and Syms doesn’t overdo things, while Janine Duvitski (Pippa in “One Foot in the Grave”, and many other roles) is an excellent, sneezing Lucy Schmeeler. Of the singers who are not operatic, one has to make allowances for inconsistencies in the voices, which includes the trio of on-leave sailors, although all three are convincing in the roles; these are very youthful and fresh renditions. As the taxi-driving man-catcher Hildy, Caroline O’Connor is irrepressible and wholly likeable (but her enunciation suffers a little and her singing is a little challenged); Lucy Schaufer manages all these disciplines more comprehensively; and Helen Anker’s Ivy Smith is the genuine ‘girl next door’.

Without being partisan, it’s Andrew Shore who is the most complete artist here. He doesn’t have much to do as Judge Bridgework, but his singing and enunciation are impeccable (as ever) and his spoken “Hello Darling” whenever he finds his bride-to-be Claire de Loone in congress with one of the sailors is a model of perfect timing and inflection.

There is much dancing, too, which is superbly choreographed and executed, and for which Bernstein writes music of a similar standard to the songs. And those songs include “New York, New York” as the show-stopping opener, which is in turn usurped by “Lonely Town” and “Some Other Time”, two of Bernstein’s most poignant creations. Add in “Come Up to My Place” and “I Can Cook Too”. Sometimes Bernstein is just a little too clever, sometimes a bit of pruning is needed to ‘events’ – but this is music of energy, invention and capable of touching the heart. By the way, for MGM’s film version of “On the Town” (Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra), Bernstein wanted his name removed from the credits, given little of his music remained, which didn’t happen. I’m sure Lenny would be happy to put his name to ENO’s presentation.

So, a great show? Yes, it is, and ENO has done a superb job. So, it’s a real shame that the voices are amplified, a process that simply isn’t necessary. It may now be ‘standard’ in the theatre, but better surely to get artists to learn to project rather than fall-back on such ‘easy’ tools. In ENO’s “On the Town” all the singers are amplified to various degrees (even White and Shore!). The result is that they are all too loud (in relation to the non-amplified orchestra) and with an ‘electronic’ timbre to the voices – working naturally in a defined acoustic is not an option. That said, at least the sounds emerge from where the participants are standing rather than only from the 30-foot ribbon speakers arranged (discreetly) either side of the stage. But why not treat “On the Town” as an opera? Bernstein conceived it for the same natural presentation as did Mozart or Berg for their operas.

During the interval I chanced to speak with the Sound designer Nick Lidster. Mr Lidster proved most understanding of my objections and we chatted amiably. He, in turn, offered reasons why the amplification was needed, not least the size of the Coliseum and the discrepancy between voices. Fair enough, but my ears tell a different story regarding true sound; and there are times when the orchestra seems captured by the singers’ lapel-microphones and becomes a tad glossy.

Anyway, ENO has made its choice and spent its money (£100,000 was reported). In fairness to Nick Lidster (of Autograph Sound Design), he has created a thoroughly professional and expert “landscape” and his sound-effects are superb, not least for the subway. It was a pleasure to talk with him.

Apart from this (very important) issue, ENO has a triumph on its hands. There are plenty of opportunities to see “On the Town”, including several matinee performances.

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