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Sunday, June 24, 2018

'On The Town' is a Helluva Show at Olney

Sam Ludwig (Ozzie), Rhett Guter (Gabey), and Evan Casey (Chip) 
Photo: Stan Barouh

When one is serving in the Navy, especially during wartime, the opportunity for liberty at a port is always something sailors eagerly look forward to. Shore leave for them is akin to children anticipating Christmas morning.  #hocoarts

In 1944, three such sailors—Chip, Ozzie and Gabey—disembark from their ship at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and for 24 hours they make way for the bustle and nightlife of New York City seeking the personal and romantic companionship (aka a fling) that had eluded them while on duty.  One of them, however, is Chip, who is intent on seeing New York’s attractions delineated in an obsolete guide his father gave him 10 years before. 

On the subway they noticed a poster of “Miss Turnstiles for June,” Ivy Smith. Gabey falls for the image of the woman as it reminds him of his childhood crush.  The other two agree to help find her and a zany search ensues while Chip and Ozzie instantly encounter rather odd women of their own.

Their whacky story is conveyed in the classic 1944 musical On The Town that has dropped anchor at Olney Theatre Center.

The production is the early-career collaboration between Leonard Bernstein (music) and Jerome Robbins (based on the ballet Fancy Free) with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.  It’s the final musical on Olney’s Mainstage of the 2017-18 Season, marking the theatre’s 80th birthday.

Ably directed by Olney Artistic Director Jason Loewith, this iteration of On The Town is a lively, fast-paced production consistent of the old-time musicals with its solid catalogue of songs including many ballads, vibrant dance numbers and plenty of schtick.  The iconic song “New York, New York,” performed near the beginning of the production and then again as the Finale, is arguably one of the best known songs in Broadway lore.  

Robert Mintz (Ensemble), Lance E. Hayes (Ensemble), and
Rhett Guter (Gabey) Photo: Stan Barouh
Superb work by the entire ensemble showcasing their singing, dancing and comedic talents and terrific orchestration directed by Helen Hayes Award winner Christopher Youstra and his Olney record-breaking 14-piece orchestra are among keys to the show’s success.

Since there is much dancing in On The Town—a cornucopia of rhythmic high-tempo dances with an infusion of ballet—there needs to be a stellar choreographer who interprets and executes Jerome Robbins’ original choreography.  This Olney production has one in the accomplished Tara Jeanne Vallee, and the dancing that unfolds is impeccable and precise.

Rosemary Pardee’s Costume Design accurately fits the ensemble in a wide range of period attire. Alexandra Pohanka’s Wig Design (essential since many in the cast play multiple roles), Colin K. Bills’ Lighting Design, and Roc Lee’s Sound Design are all on point and added quality to an already quality show. Perhaps the sailor hats could be fastened a little tighter to the principals’ heads as their occasional falling is a distraction.

Court Watson’s creative set design is more functional than aesthetic. Dropdown and sliding scenery and a variety of set pieces and props are frequently used to accommodate the plethora of scene changes that includes the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a subway, a taxicab, streets, a couple of apartments, and several different nightclubs among other locales.  The rapidly moving scenery works well in keeping the pace of the show on target.

An elevator bringing performers out of a cavity in the center of the stage and the use of stairways on the sides are good touches enhancing the texture of the visuals.  Another nice touch is a sign that flashes the name of a different nightclub the group travels to.  And I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to the classic Nedick’s set—nostalgia for me wins out.

Evan Casey as Chip, Helen Hayes Award winner Sam Ludwig as Ozzie, and Rhett Guter as Gabey exuberantly play the three sailors.

Sam Ludwig (Ozzie), Rachel Zampelli (Claire De Loone),
Claire Rathbun (Ivy), Rhett Guter (Gabey), Tracy Lynn Olivera
(Hildy Esterhazy), and Evan Casey (Chip)  Photo: Stan Barouh
Tracy Lynn Olivera plays Hildy Esterhazy, an about-to-be fired cab driver who is hot for Chip.  Rachel Zampelli plays Claire DeLoone, an anthropologist specializing in men and who cannot control her desires.  She bags Ozzie.  And Claire Rathbun plays the elusive Ivy who has not accomplished what the subway poster suggests but instead is a “cooch dancer.”

All the principals demonstrate strong vocals and dance expertly.  As couples, they play off each other quite effectively displaying impeccable comic timing in both dialogue and movements.  It’s no wonder Mr. Casey (Chip) and Ms. Olivera (Hildy) enjoy such strong chemistry as they are a real life married couple.

The Navy trio as a group sings powerfully in such numbers as “New York, New York” and the comical “Gabey’s Coming.” They excel individually and as part of duets and production numbers where they also display elegant dancing moves.

Mr. Ludwig and Ms. Zampelli score high marks in performing in the hilarious “Carried Away” and join with Mr. Casey and Ms. Olivera in “Ya Got Me” and “Some Other Time.”

For his part, Mr. Guter as Gabey, who as disclosed by his fellow sailors, performed a heroic act during the war and saved their lives, engages in less comedy than the others but still has his moments forlornly trying to hook up with Ivy. His solo “Lonely Town” is stellar.

Ms. Olivera shines in the funny “I Can Cook, Too.” In a tour-de-force performance, she possesses amazing comical instincts and is perfectly cast for the role.

Ms. Rathbun and Mr. Ludwig’s dance duet “Pas De Deux” is sensual and majestic.

There are several other actors who do a magnificent job supporting the principals.  Bobby Smith plays among his half dozen other roles the part of Pitkin W. Bridgework, a judge who happens to be engaged to Ms. Zampelli’s Claire.  Understanding at first of Claire’s penchant for other men (“I Understand”), he becomes less so, leading to a madcap conclusion. 

Also playing multiple roles is Donna Migliaccio as Madame Maud P. Dilly, who is a standout as the heavy drinking, often inebriated vocal coach for Ivy and foil for Gabey.

Rounding out the talented cast are Ashleigh King, Amanda Kaplan, Alan Naylor, Connor James Reilly, Shawna Walker, Suzanne Lane, Jennifer Flohr, Ian Anthony Coleman, Lance E. hayes, Robert Mintz, Ron Tal and Taylor J. Washington.

On The Town is a fun musical with plenty of talented performers, musicians, and an expert technical crew. Leave your worries at home for a few hours and enjoy a talented cast giving their all in this wild adventure in New York, New York, a helluva town.  And this is one helluva show.

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

On The Town runs through July 22 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting online.   

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