Two of the shows that I cover in some detail in my musical-theater history course are On Your Toes (1936) and On the Town (1944). My students often confuse the two with each other, which is understandable, partly because of the similar titles, but also because each show represents a major step forward in the integration of purposeful dance, albeit in subtly distinct ways.
On Your Toes was a genuine attempt to bring musical-theater dance to center stage. I had an opportunity to see On Your Toes during its recent Encores! revival, and it was clear to me from seeing the show that the integration process still had a long way to go. The show features two major dance interludes. The first, the "Princess Zenobia" ballet, while impressive is fairly tangential to the plot, at least in terms of the Sheherazade-like nature of the ballet's story. And the climactic "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" is only integrated inasmuch as the lead male character, Junior, needs to keep the ballet going to avoid being shot by a gangster in the audience. But the story of the ballet is entirely separate from the plot of the show. Admittedly, the title song features dance that is very integrated, with tappers and ballet dancers squaring off in an expression of the show's central theme: the classical versus the popular.
I also had a chance to see On the Town recently at the Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Whereas On Your Toes was a fascinating but creaky relic, On the Town is an exuberant joy. Of course, the right director can make a world of difference in staging a classic show, and the Barrington fortunately has John Rando, who whips up a briskly paced production full of energetic staging, smooth transitions, and neon-bright characterizations. Rando is at a significant advantage here, because On the Town is a much stronger show than On Your Toes, but On the Town is by no means fool-proof, as the last two Broadway revivals have demonstrated.
On the Town was really the first time that dance became the connective tissue that held a show together, which makes perfect sense given that the show started as a 1944 Jerome Robbins ballet called Fancy Free. On the Town features dance interludes in almost every song, and the dance is far more essential to the narrative than the dance in On Your Toes. For example, the "Imaginary Coney Island" ballet not only brings us into the mind of the show's central character, Gabey (we witness his innocence and his romantic longing), it also provides a humorous transition to the final major episode in the plot (Gabey thinks Coney Island is the playground of moneyed sophisticates. We know it ain't.)
The current Barrington production doesn't use the original Jerome Robbins On the Town choreography, as the recent Encores production of On the Town did. Because Robbins was so much a part of making the original On the Town successful, bringing in a new choreographic vision doesn't always work. (Just ask Ron Field, choreographer of the 1971 Broadway revival, and Keith Young/Joey McKneely, who worked on the 1999 revival.) Thankfully, Joshua Bergasse is more than up to the job, and fills the stage with an exhilarating array of imaginative patterns, replete with some genuinely thrilling lifts. Bergasse's only Broadway credits thus far are as a performer, but he really seems to be a choreographer worth watching out for.
Other than the chance to see a seminal show, the main attraction this production of On the Town held for me was the first-rate roster of Broadway performers in the Barrington cast. The sensational Tony Yazbeck returns to the role of Gabey, which he also played at Encores. If anything, he was even more appealing on the smaller Barrington stage. What a voice. What a dancer. What a looker. (Can we please get this amazing guy back on Broadway as soon as humanly possible?) Ably assisting Yazbek are Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves as Chip and Ozzie, respectively, both of whom craft memorable, individual characterizations in parts that can easily become indistinct.
Most notable among the supporting cast was Alysha Umphress as Hildy, who puts a strong personal stamp on a role that has a long history of memorable performances from big brassy ladies (including Nancy Walker, Bernadette Peters, and Leslie Kritzer). Umphress was especially impressive in "Come up to My Place," a number whose staging was fast and fresh, without ever detracting from the comic intent of the song. Among the more mature cast members were the priceless Nancy Opel, a scenery-chewing hoot as Madame Dilly, and Tony winner Michael Rupert, who brings his forty-plus years of stage experience and a laser-sharp baritone to the relatively minor part of Pitkin W. Bridgework. (Special shout out to Boston Conservatory sophomore Jane Bernhard, making her Barrington Stage debut in the show's ensemble. Much love, doll.)
On the Town runs at the Barrington Stage through July 13th. If you're planning on going, get your tickets soon. After Ben Brantley's recent rave in the New York Times, sales are likely to be brisk. And rightly so.