The essential rule in most musicals is that the characters speak until their emotions reach the point where they are propelled into song. That rule takes a dramatically different form in “On the Town,” the musical that began as a ballet — “Fancy Free,” devised by choreographer Jerome Robbins and set to music by Leonard Bernstein.
In “On the Town,” now in a rare and gloriously comic-kinetic revival at the Marriott Theatre, emotion arrives fully formed in the language of dance. The story is propelled by locomotion — a pure kinetic energy rooted in the manic motor of New York City, but more crucially, by a seize-the-day mentality that comes with wartime, and the sense that any minute might be your last.
Watch the high-flying antics of the three sailors who arrive for a 24-hour shore leave in the show’s opening “ballet” number, “New York, New York.” As they quickly encounter all the human wonders (from the chicest women, to subway straphangers, to Times Square low-lifes), you realize the songs in this show (featuring a perfectly zany book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green) have to move as fast as the people, with Bernstein’s lustrous, jazzy, pastiche score setting the pace.
This is a choreographer’s dream show, and Alex Sanchez’s work is spectacular — wildly ingenious and playful from start to finish. But director David H. Bell is deeply rooted in dance, too, so there is a seamlessness about every element of this production, soaring on a multi-talented cast that moves as if it has been working together for years. Bell also subtly suggests the sense of mortality that hovers over all the fun.
The time is 1944, and who knows where the sailors at the center of the story will be shipping out to next. What we do learn is that Gabey (Max Clayton) is the shy romantic and naturally modest hero; that Chip (Seth Danner) loves his guidebook and has promised his dad he’ll see all the sights, and that Ozzie (Jeff Smith) is a ready-for-anything guy. When Gabey falls in love with a subway poster for Miss Turnstiles (the immensely talented and likable Alison Jantzie), all three men head off in different directions to find her, with Chip and Ozzie determined to track her down as a way of thanking the guy who saved their lives. Their quest leads them on hilarious adventures that often feel like a living animated cartoon, yet never lose touch with the show’s genuine heart.
Chip quickly becomes the object of desire of Hildy (Marya Grandy, a unique talent), an irrepressibly horny taxi driver who shares an apartment with sinus-plagued weirdo Lucy (hilarious Brandi Wooten). Ozzie finds himself in the Museum of Natural History, where anthropologist Clair DeLoone (Johanna McKenzie Miller in knockout form) notes his ideal Neanderthal measurements, and where a living diorama of cavemen all but steals the show. Claire clearly finds Ozzie more desirable than Pitkin (pitch-perfect Alex Goodrich), the rich but nerdy curator who also is her fiance.
Meanwhile, Gabey manages to track Miss Turnstiles down all by himself, finding her in a Carnegie Hall studio where she is under the thumb of her money-hungry, alcoholic voice teacher, Madame Dilly (Barbara Robertson in grand comic form).
In a uniformly brilliant cast (enhanced by Ryan T. Nelson’s music direction), everyone dances, sings and acts up a storm. But of course it’s Clayton, Danner and Smith who keep this ship sailing, and they do so with such athletic effortlessness that you forget how hard they’re working.
Thirteen years after “On the Town, another Bernstein-Robbins collaboration, “West Side Story,” would arrive on Broadway. Watch these sailors and you can detect the genesis of the Jets and Sharks, even if they populate a very different New York.