Had Leonard Bernstein been regarded as a musical-theater genius a year or two before he wrote On the Town, the 1944 work might not have been cut to ribbons when it was made into a movie starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Apparently unimpressed with all of the material in Bernstein's first Broadway effort, Hollywood producer Arthur Freed included only three original songs and two dance numbers (both initially composed for Jerome Robbins's ballet Fancy Free, on which the show is based) in the 1949 film; Freed hired Roger Edens and Bernstein's New York collaborators, Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who were featured in the Broadway premiere), to compose the rest.
Although movie buffs might not immediately recognize the version that's being presented by the Arvada Center, most of the songs -- and nearly all of the dances -- in this passable revival have what is today a familiar Bernstein-Robbins look, sound and feel. This smiler of a show would benefit from a couple more days of rehearsal, and a few portrayals tend to vanish in the outdoor amphitheater's vast expanse. Even so, director Bev Newcomb-Madden and an energetic cast of performers lend warmth, humor and charm to Bernstein's maiden theatrical voyage.
Playing outsized characters that crack wise one moment and gurgle about their feelings the next typically brings out a performer's caricaturish worst -- especially when the stereotypical love story involves three sailors looking to sample the various temptations in one of the world's most famous ports of call. And with characters who have names like Pitkin W. Bridgework, Madame P. Dilly and Waldo Figment, who could blame any actor for indulging in a too-broad style of playing?
Happily, actress Joan Staples convinces as wacky history maven Claire De Loone even as she radiates an infectious largeness of spirit. Whether Claire is skulking about New York's Museum of Natural History ("Carried Away") or wistfully crooning while riding the Coney Island Subway Express ("Some Other Time"), the capable Staples projects her character's oddities without distorting them and exploits Claire's weak-kneed/always-in-control duality to pleasant comic effect. As the aforementioned Pitkin, an upstanding judge who seems to delight in being Claire's "safe" boyfriend, Gregory Price nicely complements her. Sporting a potbelly, frilly apron and scraggly whiskers (add a pair of socks and sandals and he'd be downright bookish), Price endows the role with a warmth and gravitas that enhance his delivery of a recurring ditty ("I Understand").
As a trio of pleasure-seeking sailors, Chris Starkey, Brian Kelly and Chuck Saculla are enthusiastic and likable as, respectively, Ozzie, Chip and Gabey. Although their rendition of the show's signature piece, "New York, New York," could use a bit more polish, the high-spirited hoofers lend all of their dance numbers unbridled athleticism and drive. And each enlisted man's attempts to win over -- or, in some cases, flee from -- this or that "lucky gal" proves mildly amusing. They're backed by a strong chorus of dancers who glide about the stage with impressive ease and imbue each disparate group of New Yawkers with intriguing individuality and flair. Of particular note are a duo who breathe new life into a stodgy diorama in Act One and a pair of unidentified city dwellers who, moments later, perform a graceful pas de deux. The most heartwarming performance of all, though, comes from relative newcomer Michelle Sergeeff, a budding actress with refined musical-theater skills. She gives depth and understanding to the seemingly two-dimensional role of Ivy Smith, who tries to parlay her status as this month's Miss Turnstiles into an acting career; instead, the wholesome Ivy becomes the object of Gabey's obsessive, citywide search to ask her out on a date. Vocally steady and physically sure, the diminutive Sergeeff contributes a welcome measure of statuesque purity to the boisterous, frenzied goings-on. And her dreamy pas de deux with Saculla's Gabey in Act Two is one of the show's highlights.
As performed against an industrial-strength set of overhanging girders and giant, hand-tinted postcards (the setting was fashioned by Nick and Joan Cimyotte), the two-and-a-quarter-hour show moves along at a comfortable pace. The fanciful pastiche's early episodes suffer from a slight lack of focus, mostly because the venue's ambient light makes it impossible to properly define a sense of mood and place until the sun goes down, around intermission. Once that happens, Newcomb-Madden and company manage to turn Bernstein's shore leave into a good, if not altogether memorable, time.
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