Given his deep connection to the music of Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tilson Thomas’ choice of On the Town, the composer’s 1944 Broadway debut, was a natural one for a May 25–29 set of San Francisco Symphony semistaged concerts. What made the move not so obvious is the dance-driven-nature of the piece, which grew out of the Jerome Robbins ballet Fancy Free. To put the problem simply, the orchestra, planted at the center of the Davies Hall stage, would be in the way of all the movement.
MTT and his collaborators met the challenge head-on, with a vital and expansive version of this show about a trio of footloose World War II sailors looking for love in New York City on a one-day shore leave. Flowing from a wide stage apron in front of the orchestra to a raised platform behind, the principals and a complement of supporting players made the arrangement seem fluid and comfortable under James Darrah’s mobile direction.
A towering projection facade, shaped like the New York skyline, enlarged the visual and emotional space, with period film footage of city streets and subway riders, a Coney Island Ferris wheel and taxicabs, the Brooklyn Navy yard, and more. Lively members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus pitched in from the balconies on either side of the stage. A pair of narrators, Amanda Green and David Garrison, provided scene-setting details, snatches of dialogue, and even some commentary on the show itself.
While this Town was not without its shortcomings and infelicitous moments, there was plenty to appreciate and relish. The orchestra performed the score splendidly, capturing the music’s jazz-inflected verve, balladic sweetness, and parodic slants. There was some captivating dance, most notably by Jay Armstrong Johnson’s loose-limbed, love-addled sailor Chip, and Megan Fairchild’s pulse-quickening seduction by a shirtless Tony Yazbeck.
The sexual content of the show, which is often handled in a buoyant comic manner by the Betty Comden/Adolph Green book and lyrics, got wonderfully, urgently real in that second-act pas de deux. Joshua Bergasse’s choreography, which occasionally grew repetitive and routine, soared to the occasion and gave these thwarted lovers a scene they delivered on and then some. With Bernstein’s music positively tumescent under Thomas’ lead, it was an exhilarating high point of the evening.
Delightful, too, were several of the alluring meditations in the midst of all the frantic running around New York the plot involves. Yazbeck, one of various performers in this cast who appeared in the 2014 Broadway Town revival, didn’t fully embody the role of Gabey, the sailor whose search for a girl he spots on a subway poster forms the throughline of the show’s wispy book. But his warm voice filled the empty spaces inside “Lonely Town.”
Even better, at Wednesday’s opening-night performance, was the sighingly tender “Some Other Time,” with Isabel Leonard’s quiet contemplation of life’s fleeting pleasures leading the way into this glowing ensemble.
This Town tended to falter when it got into the satiric vein. Alysha Umphress was a notable disappointment as Hildy, the brash cabdriver who picks up Chip in both senses of the term. Her famously suggestive number “I Can Cook Too” was a dud, sung too fast and with its curvy nuances flattened out. Having her saunter onstage with a bunch of bananas, one of which she shoved into Chip’s mouth, was blunt and borderline vulgar. Umphress redeemed herself somewhat in her second-act contribution to “Ya Got Me.”
Some other bits that didn’t go over particularly well involved characters that have gone moldy over the years. Sheri Greenawald labored in vain to make the role of the drunken voice teacher Madame Maude P. Dilly anything more than a comic placeholder. Shuler Hensely faced a similar dilemma with a cuckold who finally musters the courage to rebel. It didn’t help matters that Hensley’s pitch control meandered.
Handsome as the show looked with its projections (Adam Larsen) and colored washes of atmospheric lighting (Pablo Santiago), there was one ill-judged detail in Peabody Southwell’s costume design. Imprinting one costume after another with the New York skyline silhouette not only had the unfortunate effect of a corporate brand, it also undermined the here-today, gone-from-New-York-tomorrow poignance of the piece.
On the Town, with its Aristotelian unities of place and time, is both eternal and evanescent, timeless and completely of its era, with wartime America in a desperate, exuberant embrace of the unknown. Wednesday’s San Francisco Symphony performance caught a wide swatch of all that. For Thomas it was another proud instance of stretching the envelope and proving what an orchestra can do when it thinks big and tries the improbable.