Review: ‘On the Town’ at Olney Theatre Center

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D.C.–area audiences are notorious for their too-free-and-easy awarding of standing ovations. But last night’s prolonged, enthusiastic, standing, whooping, hollering, response to Olney Theatre’s presentation of On the Town was as fully deserved as it could be. Every aspect of the exuberant 1944 Leonard Bernstein/Jerome Robbins/Adolph Comden/Betty Green collaboration was performed at a level of near-perfection.

Evan Casey (Chip), Sam Ludwig (Ozzie), Rhett Guter (Gabey), and Bobby Smith (Bill Poster) in On The Town, now playing at Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Evan Casey (Chip), Sam Ludwig (Ozzie), Rhett Guter (Gabey), and Bobby Smith (Bill Poster) in On The Town, now playing at Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The plot is simplicity itself. Three young sailors with a 24-hour liberty from their Navy ship seek to experience Manhattan – its sights, its ambiance, and most importantly, its girls – in their brief time ashore. They succeed in having the time of their lives.

In a show developed from a ballet – the Robbins/Bernstein Fancy Free – dance is the key element. The cast executes Tara Jeanne Vallee’s superb choreography with unstinting energy and precision, whether in large ensemble numbers like the “Times Square Ballet” that concludes Act 1 and the Act 2 nightclub scenes, smaller group scenes like the three sailors’ initial “New York, New York,” or intimate pieces like the “Lonely Town Pas de Deux” and Coney Island dream ballet between Gabey (Rhett Guter) and Ivy (Claire Rathbun).  Rathbun’s balletic sensitivity is a highlight throughout, and Guter partners her beautifully. In this production, even seemingly casual moments – people walking across the stage as fast-paced New Yorkers or removing set pieces – are choreographed in keeping with the score and mood of the show.

Bernstein’s jazzy, varied score, together with the sometimes witty, sometimes sweet Comden/Green lyrics, is a treasure, far more than simply accompaniment for the dance. There are memorable character numbers, all well-sung, such as “I Can Cook Too,” belted by the sexually voracious Hildy (Tracy Lynn Olivera) as she pounces on Chip (Evan Casey); “Carried Away,” as the only slightly less voracious Claire De Loone (Rachel Zampelli) takes on Ozzie (Sam Ludwig); and Gabey’s wistful “Lonely Town.” There are moments of touching beauty and longing, such as the choral “Lonely Town” that opens Act 2 and the quartet “Some Other Time” near show’s end. Christopher Youstra’s on-stage orchestra does full justice to Bernstein’s music.

The characters outside the lead sextet make a strong impression as well. The strongest male voice in the cast belongs to Bobby Smith, playing Pitkin, Claire’s kissing-challenged beta-male fiancé. (Smith also appears as an over-the-top, ubiquitous nightclub emcee). Donna Migliaccio, always a versatile delight, starts the show as a dock worker singing a heartfelt “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet.” She later morphs into a complaining old lady; Ivy’s manipulative souse of a vocal teacher, Madame Dilly; and various nightclub singers. Suzanne Lane has a nice character bit as Lucy, Hildy’s sniffly roommate.

It is the production details that create the richness of the world in which a show’s characters live and move, and this production’s details are a source of constant enjoyment and wonder.

Like the lighting for a dance performance, Colin K. Bills’ complex, multi-hued design creates the setting for the movement. At times, the lighting seems part of the choreography, as when a nightclub sign blinks in perfect time to dancers’ hand claps. Bills provided some nice, quick, specials whenever Pitkin delivered his “I understand” mantra. A delightful feature of Roc Lee’s sound design was to give each of a group of characters trying to chase the sailors his or her own distinct sound, such as a police siren for the little old lady.

Tracy Lynn Olivera (Hildy Esterhazy), Sam Ludwig (Ozzie), Rhett Guter (Gabey), Rachel Zampelli (Claire De Loone), and Evan Casey (Chip) in On the Town at Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Tracy Lynn Olivera (Hildy Esterhazy), Sam Ludwig (Ozzie), Rhett Guter (Gabey), Rachel Zampelli (Claire De Loone), and Evan Casey (Chip) in On the Town at Olney Theatre Center. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Because the stage must provide ample space for the dance numbers, On the Town cannot be a set-heavy show. But Court Watson’s three-level city silhouettes bracketing the orchestra provided an appropriate backdrop for the proceedings, and Watson used movable set pieces – my favorite was the light pink kitchen unit in Hildy’s apartment – to good effect in several scenes.

Rosemary Pardee’s costumes are a kaleidoscope, covering a wide swath of the color palette, expressing the swirling energy that pervades the show. They can impress with their simplicity – Ivy’s red dress stands out in one major ensemble dance number – or their showiness – Madame Dilly’s glittery outfit or nightclub dancers’ yellow tops and flouncy striped skirts. Even the briefest moments get treated with individual care, such as the leather boy outfits that are used once, for a few seconds, as two ensemble members move off a lighted palm tree. And, crucial for a dance-centered show, the costumes flow with the cast members’ movement.

On the Town, written when its creators were in their mid-20s, is all about youthful energy, sexual and otherwise, as its characters do their best to squeeze every bit of life out of their brief time in New York. (The older characters played by Smith and Migliaccio are treated less kindly, mostly as figures of fun). World War II is in the background, but the show’s sights are fixed on the joy of living this day, joy that the Olney production abundantly gives to the audience.

Running Time: Two hours and 35 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

On the Town plays through July 22, 2018, at the Olney Theatre Center Mainstage, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 301-924-3400, or go online.