Monday, July 22, 2013

New York Musicals: On the Town and Hello, Dolly!

On the Town at the Barrington Stage

Though they’re best known for writing Singin’ in the Rain, the funniest movie musical ever made, the book and lyric writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green were the most notable proponents – perhaps even the inventors – of the New York musical. During their long-term and prolific collaboration they worked together on On the Town, Wonderful Town, Bells Are Ringing, Do Re Mi and, on screen, It’s Always Fair Weather, all of which unfold against the backdrop of a bustling Manhattan peopled with colorful caricatures of New York types. There’s an exuberance in the way Comden and Green employ specific New York settings: the Greenwich Village of the 1930s in Wonderful Town, the subway in the “Hello, Hello There” number in Bells are Ringing, Stillman’s Gym in It’s Always Fair Weather. Their first Broadway show, On the Town, which just closed in a marvelous production at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires, begins and ends in the Navy dockyard, and in between takes us to Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Natural History, Coney Island and the interior of a taxi driven by a boisterous female cabbie named Hildy. It’s a valentine to the city, seen through the eyes of three young sailors who encounter it for the first time during a twenty-four-hour furlough.

On the Town, which opened in 1944, evolved from a ballet called Fancy Free that Leonard Bernstein had just written for the choreographer Jerome Robbins. (It’s a charming piece; the Boston Ballet staged a superb revival of it last year.) In the musical, each of the sailors manages to find a romantic partner during their brief leave. Gabey sets out to meet Ivy Smith, “Miss Turnstiles” of the month, whose photo on the wall of a subway platform entrances him; he finds her but circumstances conspire to keep them apart – and then to bring them together. (The idea of New York as both an ally and an adversary to romance pops up again in Vincente Minnelli’s touching 1945 film The Clock, in which Robert Walker is a G.I. on leave in New York and Judy Garland is the girl he meets and falls for when, symbolically, he accidentally trips her at the foot of an escalator in Penn Station.) Gabey and Ivy are, in traditional musical-comedy parlance, the juvenile and the ingĂ©nue, while Gabey’s buddies, Chip and Ozzie, and the ladies they wind up with, Hildy and the anthropologist Claire De Loone, are the comic secondary couples, though in fact Bernstein, Comden and Green divide the action pretty much equally among the three pairs. Comden and Green themselves played Claire and Ozzie in the original Broadway production, which generated one of the earliest – and best – cast recordings. (On it, though, presumably for contract reasons, John Reardon subs for the stage Gabey, John Battles. It’s hard to imagine that Battles could have done a better job with Gabey’s two ballads, “Lonely Town” and “Lucky to Be Me.”) Ivy is mostly a dance role (Sono Osato created it), and the musical takes full advantage of Robbins’ presence on the project by including four ballets. The stringent choreographic demands – the score includes nearly an hour of dance music – may explain why it went virtually unrevived for nearly a quarter of a century, though now it occupies a robust role in the musical-theatre repertory. (Boston’s Lyric Stage ran its own version in the spring.)

The Barrington Stage revival was directed by John Rando, who did an excellent version for Encores! in 2008. This fully staged On the Town isn’t extravagant; Beowulf Boritt’s set designs are cleverly pared down to accommodate the company’s main space in Pittsfield, which is ample but not deep. But nothing about the show feels cut-rate – not the orchestra, conducted by Darren R. Cohen, or the twenty-six-member ensemble, or the choreography by Joshua Bergasse (whose most recent previous credit was the TV series Smash), which is, as it should be, the highlight of the evening. The three high-stepping sailors are played by Tony Yazbeck (Gabey), Clyde Alves (Ozzie) and Jay Armstrong Johnson (Chip), all of whom are superlative dancers – especially, I’d say, Johnson, whose movement is dazzlingly – and hilariously – fluid, as if he had electric currents running through him instead of bones. They’re ideally matched by the three principal women. Ivy is played as a glamorous forties-style blonde by Deanna Doyle; the manically enthusiastic Claire is Elizabeth Stanley (her duet with Ozzie is called, appropriately, “Carried Away”); and Hildy is Alysha Umphress, a zaftig belter who keeps threatening to walk away with the musical. Of course, the songwriting trio wrote the two best comic numbers for Hildy, “Come Up to My Place,” which she performs with Chip, and “I Can Cook Too” – and the original Hildy, Nancy Walker, brought the house down with them. (One of the musical’s most enjoyable qualities, I’ve always thought, was the fact that it makes Hildy and Claire such voracious sexual creatures: they really lasso those lucky bastards Chip and Ozzie.) The cast also includes some expert comics in smaller parts. Nancy Opel plays Ivy’s tippling voice teacher, Madame Dilly, as well as both the lugubrious nightclub vocalists, Diana Dream and Dolores Dolores, who sing an uproarious parody of a torch song, “I Wish I Was Dead.” Allison Guinn is Hildy’s nasal roommate Lucy Schmeeler, and Michael Rupert is Claire’s long-suffering fiancĂ© Pitkin Bridgework, whose Zen tolerance finally runs out in the second-act number “I Understand.”

On the Town weighs boisterous humor against pathos. Bernstein wrote, in my estimation, his most lush and heartfelt music for the ballads and the ballets (I’m not a West Side Story fan). Tony Yazbeck played Gabey the romantic dreamer in the Encores! production, and it was wise of Rando to bring him back; until late in the second act, he’s the one who gives the show its core of emotion. But, bucking convention, Bernstein and Comden and Green wrote the most beautiful number as a quartet for the two comic couples. They’re en route to Coney Island in pursuit of Gabey, who has gone after Ivy, but for a few minutes everything winds down as they share a late-night subway car and think, for the first time, about the men’s imminent departure. The song is “Some Other Time,” a wistful reflection on all the things the couples have not yet shared. “Haven’t had time to wake up / Seeing you there without your make-up,” Ozzie sings, and since Rando’s staging has made it clear that both couples have slept together (this is the sexiest On the Town I’ve ever seen), the physical longing in that line isn’t just wish-fulfillment fantasy but an acknowledgement of an already intimate connection that may be lost forever when the men ship off the next morning. For 1944 audiences, the musical was romantic escapism but it brought them back to earth during this number, which would have reminded them of the fragility of romance in wartime. We have to put ourselves back in that era when we hear it now, but Alves and Stanley, Johnson and Umphress make it easy for us. The quartet is vibrant with feeling.

Hello, Dolly! at the Goodspeed Opera House

I saw Hello, Dolly! on Broadway in 1965 with Ginger Rogers in the role of the widowed matchmaker, Dolly Gallagher Levi, who sets her sights on the wealthy Yonkers shopkeeper Horace Vandergelder, whose marriage he’s hired her to broker. Rogers was so glaringly miscast that it was hard to figure out how the show, with its Michael Stewart book and Jerry Herman score, was supposed to work. The fabled David Merrick production, which Gower Champion staged, had been set up as an elaborate vaudeville act – set in a picture-postcard rendition of 1890s New York – built around the aging star in the title role. Carol Channing had originated the role the year before, and I doubt I would have liked her much better; when you listen to her on the cast recording, you want to hide under the table. Eventually Ethel Merman played it, and Mary Martin, Martha Raye, Dorothy Lamour and Pearl Bailey, among others. (When Bailey took over Merrick switched over to an entirely African American cast, with Cab Calloway as Horace; that’s the version I wish I’d seen.) Many musicals have been conceived as vehicles for legendary stars, but I don’t think there’s ever been one that passed among so many, each woman reshaping it to fit her trademark style. When Gene Kelly filmed it, Barbra Streisand took over. She was obviously too young for the role – this was her second movie, coming right after she won the Oscar for Funny Girl – but her tour de force performance in an otherwise wan, overproduced spectacle that felt woefully anachronistic in 1969 perpetuated the idea that Hello, Dolly! was a cardboard cut-out that could only be vivified by the right musical-comedy star.

That’s not precisely what Thornton Wilder had in mind when he wrote the source material, The Matchmaker. It didn’t originate with him: it had been a one-act farce called A Day Well Spent by John Oxenford and then a full-length comedy by the Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy (both in the first half of the nineteenth century), and Wilder had tried an earlier adaptation called The Merchant of Yonkers. Perhaps that’s why the play has always felt a little worn and arch, but it was a hit on Broadway in 1955, with Ruth Gordon as Dolly, and Shirley Booth played it in a movie version three years later that featured Paul Ford, Anthony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Morse. The Matchmaker is a romantic comedy in which the action is fairly evenly distributed between Dolly’s machinations to win the ornery Vandergelder and the courtship she encourages between his chief clerk, Cornelius Hackl, and Irene Molloy, the milliner Horace himself has been courting. There are additional pairings between the deputy clerk, Barnaby Tucker, and Irene’s assistant, Minnie Fay, and between Horace’s niece and ward, Ermengarde, and the young artist, Ambrose Kemper, of whom her uncle doesn’t approve. The cleverness of the plot is in the doubling of the roles of the chief male and female characters. Dolly is the romantic enabler, the embodiment of the erotic force that in the classical sense always drives the comedy, and Horace is the obstacle – like the old fool in the commedia dell’ arte farces who has to be tricked so that young love can thrive; but the way Dolly subdues him is by getting him to fall in love with her, and his new-found geniality at the end of the play converts him from Cupid’s adversary to Cupid’s ally. Typically in Hello, Dolly!, all of these dramaturgical arrangements are muted because, for good or ill, the musical-comedy star playing Dolly is overemphasized and the rest of the show feels like window dressing.

Klea Blackhurst in Hello, Dolly!
But the vastly enjoyable new production at the Goodspeed Opera House, directed by Daniel Goldstein, restores the balance and reveals Hello, Dolly! as a far better show than I’d ever suspected. Though it has one hell of a Dolly in Klea Blackhurst, her performance is blissfully relaxed; she commands the stage but her combination of supreme confidence and restraint is winning, and in her interaction with the rest of the ensemble it registers as generosity. Blackhurst can belt (among her credits is Everything the Traffic Will Allow, a tribute to Ethel Merman) but she doesn’t use it until the first-act finale, “Before the Parade Passes By,” and when she gets to the beloved title number in the middle of act two, she sings it sweetly (as Streisand did in the film). Her Dolly is a model of musical-comedy finesse; she doesn’t overplay a single number or scene, including the famous vaudevillian bit where Dolly finishes an enormous meal at a downstage table in the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant while upstage, where all the other characters are in court for disturbing the peace, the judge (Jack Doyle) awaits her patiently. Looking spectacular in Wade Laboissonniere’s Gilded Age gowns (all the costumes are splendid), Blackhurst strolls through the production with the kind of assured style that makes devotees out of audiences. (At the performance I attended, the house cheered her during the curtain call.)

The musical is beautifully staged and the choreography by Kelli Barclay is well up to Goodspeed’s usual high standard; of the seven or eight dance numbers, only one, the second-act opener “Elegance,” a quartet for the two clerks and their dates, is rather conventional. (The song is fun, though Herman stole the idea – those without cab fare adopting the idea that walking is chic – from Fred Astaire and Judy Garland’s “A Couple of Swells” duet in Easter Parade.) The dance highlight is the acrobatic “Waiters’ Galop,” which precedes the title number. Dancers must love working at the Goodspeed, where they’re always showcased magnificently. In this production most of the dancers, including Spencer Moses as Cornelius and Charles MacEachern as Ambrose, are unusually tall and slender, and Adrian W. Jones’s delectable double-tiered set accentuates the vertical – Vandergelder’s hay and feed store contains high shuttered windows and high arches – so the whole thing looks a little like pop Modigliani. It’s a great visual joke, and the upper level of the set allows for simultaneous activity in some of the numbers (especially “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”). Plus Goldstein and Barclay use the aisles for the 14th Street parade in “Before the Parade Passes By.” The show seems to have been conceived to make musical-comedy buffs feel like kids in a candy store.

The supporting cast is very strong, especially Ashley Brown as a full-bosomed, full-voiced Irene Molloy, Spencer Moses and Jeremy Morse as the clerks, and Catherine Blades as Minnie Fay. Moses gives Cornelius an odd, tinny voice but when he’s called on to duet with Brown on “It Only Takes a Moment,” they sound lovely together. The coda to this song contains an unexpectedly poignant couple of bars where the melody acquires a Jerome Kern-like melodic richness while Cornelius and Irene sing, “And that is all that love’s about / And we’ll recall when time runs out . . .” Generally I don’t care for Jerry Herman’s scores, but this one contains a lot of really good music: “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” “Dancing,” “Before the Parade Passes By,” “Elegance,” “It Only Takes a Moment,” “So Long, Dearie” and of course the title song, the appeal of which can’t be overstated. There aren’t many lemons – maybe just two. I guess there’s no way to cut Irene’s solo, “Ribbons Down My Back,” though it sounds like a discard from some 1923 operetta, but surely we can do without “Motherhood”? Herman didn’t do his best writing for the millinery shop scene.

The only cast member I have qualms about is Tony Sheldon, who plays Horace. It’s a tough role: a misanthrope who turns into a sweetie. Sheldon’s decision is to strive to make the character likable, but it isn’t written that way, so he just seems to be trying too hard. Who would be right for this part? For a few minutes in the movie you think Walter Matthau is going to make it work (I’d say through the first chorus of “It Takes a Woman”), but then he seems to give up, and for the rest of the picture he looks straitjacketed, perhaps because he and Streisand have nothing remotely resembling chemistry. I think you need someone outsize, with his own brand of lovableness, like Jackie Gleason.

Hello, Dolly! appears to be a hit for Goodspeed, which has extended it. It deserves all the love it’s getting from audiences.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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