Opera + Classical Music Reviews

On The Town @ Coliseum, London

5, 10, 12, 18, 24, 26 March, 7, 8, 13, 14, 19 April, 11, 19, 21, 24, 27, 28 May 2005

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: Grant Smith/ENO)

On The Town has just received its first fully staged performance in London. For a 1944 musical of such genius – from the master of this genre, Leonard Bernstein – with such iconic songs (particularly, of course, New York, New York), this is extraordinary. Maybe the 1949 film, starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, obscured the masterpiece underneath – having hacked about the score and kept only three of the original numbers. Whatever, ENO has come to the rescue and despite some raised eyebrows that a musical should be seen in an opera house, they’ve done us proud.

There was a semi-staged version at the Barbican in 1992, with Frederica von Stade, Thomas Hampson, Samuel Ramey and Cleo Lane, no less, in the bit part of the nightclub singer. ENO however goes the whole hog and has not only imported an award-winning director of musicals in Jude Kelly, but also a cast of singers, actors and dancers that blend with and complement the ENO chorus and a handful of “opera” singers. The result is electric.

One of the reasons On The Town hasn’t been seen in London could be that to pull it off you need a huge cast – and that needs a huge stage. Well, The London Coliseum can certainly oblige on that count: a cast of 57 plus a 48-piece orchestra is no big deal in that vast auditorium.

The story is basic – written, set and first performed in 1944, three young sailors have 24 hours leave in New York before they return to the war, and are determined to make the most of it, ie. with pick up girls. Gabey is a romantic, searching for his ideal; Ozzie will go for anything in skirts and shy Chip is actually more interested in seeing the sights.

Each finds a girl, of course, but all know that when the 24 hours are up they will have to return to the ship, and who knows when (or if) they will be back… The show is refreshingly direct – there’s no doubt at all that sex is on the agenda for at least two out of the three couples – perhaps because of the wartime setting, when (we hear) behaviour that would have been scandalous in the frumpy ’50s was common.

It’s also very funny. Claire de Loone, an anthropologist with a distinct weakness for men, and Brunnhilde Esterhazy (Hildy), a failed taxi driver desperate for a man to cook for, provide some of the best entertainment of the night as they pair up with Ozzie and Chip respectively.

Lucy Schaufer is superb as Claire, proving that operatic singers can cross over into musicals – and dance, too. Caroline O’Connor (Olivier nominated for her West End performance in Mack & Mabel) is a winning Hildy, almost stealing the show with I Can Cook, Too. Tim Howar (Ozzie) and Adam Garcia (Chip), also no strangers to the London musical stage, more than hold their own.

Gabey is played by the handsome Aaron Lazar, imported from Broadway and persuasive as the idealist. His big number – Lonely Town – was marred at the start by a problem with the amplification ENO has wisely installed for this production, but he came through. His dream girl Ivy is mostly a dancing role, and Helen Anker was a delight. The high spot of the whole production was the dream sequence ballet as Gabey, on the train to Coney Island to find her, imagines his date with Ivy, and then having to leave her to go back to the war.

But the whole evening is punctuated by bitter-sweet moments; another is the quartet Some Other Time – “Haven’t had time to wake up / seeing you there without your makeup / Oh well, we’ll catch up / some other time…” – when of course there may never be another time for these lovers.

This review is already too long and there’s so much else to comment on. Willard White opening the show as the workman on the pier at 6.30am with that unforgettable tune, “I feel like I’m not out of bed yet…”. Andrew Shore as Claire’s long-suffering fiancée, Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework. The choreography (Stephen Mear) and the standard of the balletic sequences, which put many a ballet company to shame. The great sets (Robert Jones), simple and effective, and especially the use of the vast iron girders that rise and fall to become all sorts of props. The set pieces – the opening of the second act in Diamond Eddie’s nightclub, with the showgirls in brilliant tail feathers and not much else. Sylvia Syms in the role of Madam Dilly, Ivy’s dipso singing teacher who does her best to keep her from Gabey.

Most of all, of course, the masterful score by Bernstein, with wonderful passages of woodwind and brass that pay homage to William Schumann (Bernstein’s mentor) and Stravinsky, both of whom were then experimenting with jazz. The ENO orchestra were, as always, in good form and seemed to be enjoying the evening under the baton of Simon Lee almost as much as we were.

Jude Kelly has done a wonderful job. The overall enthusiasm, professionalism, talent and sheer energy make this an exhilarating evening, not to be missed. Bernstein would have enjoyed it too, I reckon. Should On The Town be playing at an opera house? Definitely. And anyone who thinks otherwise should lighten up and get a life.

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On The Town @ Coliseum, London