There was a lot to like about English National Opera’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s On The Town.
It was entertaining and slickly presented and of course there was the joy of hearing that score given the full orchestral treatment. But at its centre I felt something was lacking – some heart, some warmth – and this vital missing something stopped it from being the great night it promised to be.
A huge success when it was first staged at the Coliseum in 2005 (indeed the first time it had ever been fully staged in London), the classic Bernstein musical has been brought back with many of the same principles in place.
The story is a simple one: it’s 1944 and three sailors, on 24 hours shore leave in New York, go in search of a girl. And that’s it, but then that’s all it needs. Jude Kelly’s production has some big set-pieces, including the most famous number: New York, New York. The stage is constantly packed with people, all gamely dancing away, which went some way to compensates for the rather spare sets. While the red girders that drift around the stage creating vaguely Mondrian-esque patterns are quite striking, they don’t really get across a sense of New York’s vibrancy.
Though staged by an opera company, there were surprisingly few standout vocal performances. There were exceptions; Andrew Shore was fabulously resonant as the cuckolded judge Pipkin, and Caroline O’Connor was consistently great, exuding brassy New York charm as the man-hungry taxi-driver Hildy Esterhazy. June Whitfield was also rather fun as the gin-soaked singing tutor Miss Dilly, but the three sailors, played by Ryan Molloy, Sean Palmer and Joshua Dallas, were difficult to distinguish from one another and Ivy, the object of their quest, is rather anonymous.
It was wonderful hearing Bernstein’s score performed by a full orchestra, led by conductor Simon Lee. The music had a force and power which unfortunately the on-stage action couldn’t quite keep up with. Pacing often wavered and there was one interminably long dream sequence that could have been dispatched with altogether.
The production succeeded in getting across the enthusiasm of the young men, alive and inquisitive, let loose in New York and loving it, without ignoring the uncertainty of their predicament. This is 1944 and the world is still at war, and after the brief fling in the city these boys have to return to their ship and a precarious future. In fact this dark undercurrent is perhaps too pervasive, undermining the necessary frivolity of the piece.
As I said, this was a broad, big entertaining night, with much in it to hold the attention and to keep the audience content, but it never quite lifted off in the way that I hoped; it seemed restrained and tentative, holding out for a big, emotive finish that never really arrived, that it was never going to be able to provide.