“On the Town,” currently running at Bloomington Civic Theatre, is a quirky, one-of-a-kind show. Leonard Bernstein’s score, his first for Broadway, was adapted from his ballet “Fancy Free” and contains several extended dances. The book, by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, their first musical attempt, plays more like sketches from the nightclub act for which they were famous.
Director Wendy Lehr and choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell knit the diverse elements together into a coherent and entertaining whole.
Written in 1944, at the height of World War II, the story gives us three sailors with 24 hours of shore leave in New York City before heading overseas. They are determined to make the most of their day, seeing the sights and finding dates, with hilarious results.
Music director Anita Ruth demonstrates a sure hand with the symphonic score, balancing the syncopated jazz rhythms with the sentimental love songs. Her full-bodied orchestra can really swing.
The sets by Robin McIntyre and costumes by Ed Gleeman create a nostalgic view of a fantasy New York that perfectly frames the production.
Ferrell displays a profound ability to use movement to tell a story or set a mood. His choreography, based on dances of the period, is familiar, yet original and fresh. His work created some of the most moving moments of the evening.
Lehr’s masterful comic timing is much in evidence and she also helps her young cast give the essentially cartoonish characters added depth and humanity. As the sailors, A.J. Longabaugh, Andrew Newman and C. Ryan Shipley are endearing hicks overwhelmed by the city. Shipley gives the standout performance, making the most of the score’s strongest ballad, “Lonely Town.”
As for their girls, Rachel Weber, playing a wacky anthropologist, and Colleen Somerville, a sexually aggressive cabbie, are the comic highlights. Alyssa Seifert adds a strong dance performance.
The only blemish in the production comes near the end, with one of the greatest of all show tunes, “Some Other Time.” This song of loss at the lovers’ inevitable separation lacks a necessary degree of pathos. It doesn’t take the immense uncertainty of what these characters were facing seriously enough. That’s a small defect in an otherwise stellar production.
William Randall Beard is a Minneapolis writer.