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What stop for did you hey!

03/10/2005 -  and 12, 18, 24, 26 March, 7, 8, 13, 14, 19 April, 11, 19, 21, 24 May
Leonard Bernstein: On the Town
Willard W White (Workman), Tim Howar (Ozzie), Adam Garcia (Chip), Aaron Lazar (Gabey), Helen Anker (Ivy Smith), Caroline O'Connor (Hildy), Lucy Schaufer (Claire de Loone), Sylvia Syms (Madame Dilly), Andrew Shore (Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework), Alison Jiear (Diana Dream/Dolores Dolores), Rodney Clarke (Announcer/Master of Ceremonies, Subway Conductor, Dance contest judge), Rajah Bimmy (Greg Winter)

Simon Lee (conductor), Jude Kelly (director)

ENO Orchestra and Chorus

The argument about whether the ENO should do On the Town (seen at the matinee on 12 March), Leonard Bernstein's 1944 Broadway musical, is a bit contrived. They've already done Weill's 1939 Street Scene, with just-about-recognized-from-telly hoofer Catherine Zeta Jones stealing some scenes, and Sondheim's Pacific Overtures. These two shows, like On the Town, were about explicitly contemporary worries when they were written, but so was I Lombardi, and Bernstein, Weill and Sondheim were all at the time as much state-of-the-art composers as Verdi. Given that Verdi's patriotic operas were all written before the days of "symphonic" opera, designed to stand alone as a musical composition, the exquisitely crafted twentieth-century works are arguably higher art than bel canto and early-to-middle Verdi.

Moreover, the Coliseum was built as a music hall and had an inter- and early post-war track record of staging big musicals. But those were different times, and the ENO's decision (justified by the performances) to cast a mixture of opera and music-theatre singers means that all the singers had to be amplified. The production on the other hand was opera-house minimalist, with bare girders for the public spaces and scaffolding doubling as various apartments and nightclubs. It all emphasized that this was a different show from the much perkier Stanley Donen film of the same name, with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as two of the sailors who have twenty-four hours shore leave and want to see New York and get down with girls.

Surprisingly, although the musical replaced most of the songs, Bernstein's originals did the same sort of job in the same places and generally worked as well; one, "Some other time", which simply disappeared from the film, was a minor masterpiece, summing up the special elegy of loss after a transient romantic encounter. Donen and Kelly (who choreographed) though, had the advantage of cinema editing to keep up the pace. On stage, Bernstein's breathless urban dance episodes, choreographed by Stephen Mears in homage to Jerome Robbins, made what should have been a frantic chase into a series of short-breathed scenes. It is certainly a big enough show for the house, but this production seemed to have febrile gestures rather then relentless energy. Jude Law, the director, clearly wanted to bring out the background of the war, which disappeared from the movie: perhaps the anxiety that most of the audience must feel for young men in the services today, even with a much smaller-scale military operation, was less easy to integrate than she hoped.

The three sailors, each with a different libidinal style, were all sweetly randy: Tim Howar, as the go-getting Ozzie, inevitably lacked the physical goofiness of Jules Munshin in the move, but was straightforwardly appealing, especially to the equally randy and barely repressed Claire de Loone; Adam Garcia as Chip, the shy boy from Peoria set on by predatory cab driver Brunnhilde Esterhazy, was about right, a substantial, forthright and vocally secure presence although, again, not enough to eclipse memories of Frank Sinatra. Aaron Lazar as Gabey, the arch-romantic who falls for a girl in a photo and tracks her down against all odds to make a date that never quite happens, had the hardest task of all following Gene Kelly's heart-breaking lyricism. Lazar didn't have to dance much – he had a dance double for the seriously depressing dream ballet – and his gentleness came over as wetness rather than romance at times, but he was also appealing enough.

The ladies, on their home turf and full of wartime gumption, had more of a chance. Ballet-trained music-theatre singer Helen Anker was suitably ethereal as Ivy, the girl in the photo who studies ballet and singing but works as a cootch dancer to pay the bills; American mezzo Lucy Schaufer sang gloriously as Claire, the student of man who gets too close to her subject, but didn't quite have the animal nature underneath the culture; and Caroline O'Connor as Hildy, the no-nonsense working-class girl, pretty much ran away with her scenes with Garcia, easily enough done with her cracking dialogue and smutty songs.

The young things could all have learnt a trick or two from the old hands, though: Andrew Shore's dull Judge Bridgework, Claire's "understanding" fiancé, had suitably dull music but kept the pedestrian running gag going in style; and veteran actor Sylvia Syms (the blond nurse stuck in the desert with John Mills in Ice Cold in Alex) took the comic honors as Ivy's singularly tuneless and selfish singing teacher. The numerous small roles were all well done, notably resonant baritone Rodney Clarke (the handsome sleaze from Flashmob: the opera) as a series of club comperes, even more resonant bass-baritone Willard W. White in the brief opening role of the workman who wishes he were still in bed, and Alison Jiear (Shawntel, the wannabe pole-dancer from Jerry Springer: the opera) as a series of night-club singers, each with a variant of the miserable song about death and loss that drivers the lovers away.

Simon Lee and the ENO orchestra found the coherence in Bernstein's score without making the repetitions tedious. Their performance on its own justified doing this show with a full orchestra in an opera house.

HE Elsom



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