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On the Town review - triple threat Danny Mac and co are unmissable | reviews, news & interviews

On the Town review - triple threat Danny Mac and co are unmissable

On the Town review - triple threat Danny Mac and co are unmissable

Glorious reimagining of Broadway rarity at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

Danny Mac as Gabey: 'winning flair and dynamism burn off him'All images by Johan Persson

On 8 April 1952, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green were chatting to Charlie Chaplin at a party when he started raving about a picture he’d seen the previous night at Sam Goldwyn’s house. It was called Singin’ in the Rain – had they heard of it? “Heard of it? We wrote it!” But then, this dynamic duo had form: five years earlier they wrote On the Town.

But if you’ve only ever seen that prototype sailor-on-shore-leave movie, you’ll have missed the thing from their original stage version that catapulted Comden & Green to showbiz fame: the dynamite score they wrote with their pal, composer Leonard Bernstein.

Their Broadway show is extravagant and extraordinary for not just for the songs switching between musical comedy numbers like “New York, New York” (no, not the Sinatra one) and elaborate full-blown ballet numbers choreographed by the legendary Jerome Robbins. But its demands are so huge that it's rarely staged. Step forward Drew McOnie.

In recent years, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has completely reimagined the type of shows it can stage. It was seriously smart to spot, for example, that The Crucible, a play about strange goings-on in the woods, would work brilliantly taking place amid actual woods, not to mention Sondheim’s Into the Woods. But would a musical about 24 hours in a beloved city work? Answer: yes, and then some.On the Town, Regent's ParkPeppered by a riot of period-perfect colour-block costumes, Peter McKintosh’s niftily suggestive, rather than literal, three-storey-high steel-boxes set gives all the necessary urban feel. Crucially, it also provides open space for the huge dance numbers with trucks neatly sliding on for the all-important subway carriage and indoor scenes.

Light on plot – the three sailors individually want as much fun as they can pack into a day and night – the show can feel dated, as it did in the recent effortful Broadway revival. But McOnie's production gradually replaces effort with genuine excitement. His choreography is never short on exuberance. The cast (pictured above) quite rightly lunge, leap and pirouette as if their lives depended on it, but initially it feels slightly showbiz generic rather than character specific. Doubts are swept away, however, by his handling of narrative in the extended dance episodes.

Seemingly thwarted in his search for love, Gabey sings “Lonely Town”, which is followed by an explanatory pas de deux. McOnie transforms it into a duet of forbidden love between two members of the ensemble: one a gay man in the city, the other a terrified sailor looking for sex. It’s not just a brilliant relocation, it’s a riveting dramatisation in dance both of what would have been the emotional truth for more than one sailor let loose in wartime New York, but also of the aching melancholy and emotional brass writing brimming over in Bernstein’s score.

Lovelorn Gabey (the Gene Kelly role) is played by the show’s draw, Strictly Come Dancing star Danny Mac. His winning flair and dynamism burn off him, but the best surprise is that he’s a genuine triple threat with vocal chops too. At the height of the ballad “Lucky to Be Me”,  the writing sails up to around a high G at which Mac sounds simply joyous.

On the Town, Regent's ParkHe’s superbly flanked by easeful performances from devil-may-care Samuel Edwards as Ozzie and Jacob Maynard as Chip, looking for all the world as if he’s been playing the role throughout rehearsal when in fact he stepped up from understudying when Fred Haig was injured during previews.

The women are even more characterful. Gum-chewing Lizzy Connolly (pictured above with Jacob Maynard) plays a blinder as taxi-driving Hildy with not so much a glint in her eye as a laser beam, plus comic timing that allows her to leap from kitten to full-on tiger in the blink of an eye. As no-nonsense anthropologist Claire de Loone who only lets her emotions out whenever she gets “Carried Away”, crisp-as-Vermouth, towering, scissor-legged Miriam-Teak Lee (pictured below with Samuel Edwards) is so delicious that you wonder where she has been hiding… only to discover that this is, astoundingly, her professional debut. (Casting directors, get over there quick.)

Casting almost throughout is strong. Mark Heenehan turns Judge Pitkin, a role usually overplayed into pomposity, into a wave of charm. Elsewhere, there are times when McOnie’s need to drive everything forward results in some over-ripe playing and missed detail, but it’s a tiny price to pay for his covering of what are traditionally seen as major holes in the construction.On the Town, Regent's ParkHis impressively tight control of the transitions between scenes ensures the flow never stops. There’s a real sense of everyone racing through 24 hours of pleasure in the midst of wartime. This is not only suggested, but finally fully developed in McOnie’s thrilling reinvention of Gabey’s dream ballet en route to Coney Island. Instead of a plot rehash, McOnie presents a nightmare vision of hopes dashed by death. The choreography is at its most passionate and it is fiercely ignited, punctuated and presented by Howard Hudson's superbly imaginative lighting.

Small wonder that the regretful final quartet “Some Other Time” (one of Bernstein’s finest achievements, with a heartbreaking Comden & Green lyric) is sung with such moving pathos and restrained power. On the Town is so big and buoyant that these days it tends to comes across as brash. McOnie’s achievement is to rediscover its richness and range. Unmissable.


Miriam-Teak Lee is so delicious you wonder where she has been hiding… only to discover that this is her debut


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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