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Theatre review: On the Town

A scene from "On the Town" at WMU Theatre
Mark Bugnaski
WMU Theatre
A scene from "On the Town" at WMU Theatre

Western Michigan University Theatre recently opened a revival of the 1940’s musical “On the Town”. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

Near the beginning of “On the Town,” three sailors in Navy bell bottom whites anticipate a 24-hour shore leave. Standing astride scenic designer Dave Nofsinger’s centerpiece onstage, a marvelous cobalt blue and gold compass rose encircled by the pointed tops of Gotham’s skyscrapers, they belt out the familiar lyrics, “New York, New York, a helluva town.”

Their bold song, athletic movement, and energetic vocals promise a city filled with joyous adventure, dance, song, and romance. This number also strongly suggests that audiences attending director Jay Berkow’s in-the-round production are in for a “helluva” show. And that’s exactly what this multi-talented, 34-member student ensemble delivers.

Each sailor in the trio finds a female partner in their allotted leave time. But Gabey, played by Luke James Cloherty, encounters more obstacles. He pursues the illusive Ivy, played by Jamee Johnson, a beauty contest winner whose poster he steals during a subway ride. His quest is complicated by an umbrella-toting Old Lady, True Chin-Parker, and the delicious affectations of Ivy’s music teacher, Madame Dilly, played by Ana Isabel Passero.

Cloherty and Johnson are gifted singers and dancers who hold onto our attention, from their initial awkward verbal encounter at Carnegie Hall until their dream-like ballet rendezvous in the melancholy “Imaginary Coney Island”.

Highlights for Cloherty include the streetlamp-lighted plaintive ballad “Lonely Town” and the accompanying pas de deux. Johnson’s initial number, “Presentation of Miss Turnstiles,” provides ample evidence of her abilities in both modern dance and ballet.

Strong supporting roles are delivered by Gabey’s shipmates Chip (Teddy Huff) and Ozzie (Jaden Kellman). Chip’s romantic interest is Hildy, played by Haley Rivard as a boy-crazy, lips forward, feisty cabbie. Before dinner in Hildy’s apartment, Rivard’s inviting delivery of the sizzling appetizer, “I Can Cook Too”, prepares the duo for making some noise with more than just pots and pans.

Megan Grace Ludwig, as Claire, initially presents a bookish blue blood as an odd match for rough-cut sailor Ozzie. But it doesn’t take long before the pair profess a mutual attraction in no uncertain terms through the elaborately choreographed, and superbly rendered showstopper “Carried Away.”

Director Berkow fills WMU’s Williams Theatre with a non-stop onslaught of light, color, crisp stylized movement, and dance.

His smooth, fast-paced, and stylized transitions between scenes evoke the hustle, bustle, and elevated hormone levels of World War Two New York, from Times Square to the Copacabana.

In recreating the 1940’s on stage, Berkow is greatly assisted by period detail, including Kathryn Wagner’s costumes and Garrylee McCormick’s hair design. Add to this Dave Nofsinger’s clever roll-on recreations of city conveyances, like a coat rack hung with straps to suggest the subway and a bright yellow checker-board desk on wheels for a taxicab.

Leonard Berstein’s score is wonderfully executed under Matt Shabala’s music direction. His upbeat tempos support vigorous, imaginative, choreography by Nicholas Gray with dance styles of the era that include swing, the Lindy, and rumba. And from a prehistoric era comes a cool dinosaur shuffle featuring the animated bones of a T-Rex at the Museum of Natural History.

This crowd-pleasing number and many other favorites help make “On the Town” a lively and stylish production that promises to delight audiences until the show’s closing on March 26th.

Tickets and more information are at the WMU Theatre website.

A former station manager of WMUK, Gordon Bolar is now the station's theater reviewer.
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