'On the Town' is on the mark

The Baltimore Sun

Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre has opened its new season with Leonard Bernstein's first Broadway musical, On the Town, the story of three sailors on a one-day leave in New York City before shipping out to unknown destinations.

This show seems most appropriate for this Navy town. Summer Garden's opening night on Saturday was also around Commissioning Day for the Naval Academy's Class of 2008 and the start of Memorial Day weekend. Director Debbie Barber-Eaton revived Broadway's World War II custom of having the national anthem played before each performance.

When it premiered in 1944 as an outgrowth of Bernstein's earlier ballet score Fancy Free, the show was an instant hit. MGM acquired the film rights and in 1949 made a movie starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly that retained only three of the original songs because Louis B. Mayer disliked Bernstein's score.

On the Town was revived on Broadway in 1971 with a cast that included a young Bernadette Peters, and again in 1998. Both were short-lived.

The Annapolis Summer Garden production is so lively and polished and befitting the outdoor setting that it becomes "magic theater under the stars."

Barber-Eaton, an accomplished actor, singer and director who has been involved with Summer Garden since age 17, brings a combination of talents to this show, including the sensitivity to evoke a World War II-era setting, the ability to extract bright and nuanced performances from her cast, and a whimsical creativity by simulating Manhattan's subway and taxi transportation.

A combined staff group effort results in a living taxi made up of four actors - two with the word TAXI on their backs with one at each side displaying a headlight. The vehicle is completed by black umbrellas twirled to become moving wheels.

In furthering the magic under the stars, Barber-Eaton has help from her frequent colleague, Ron Giddings, who serves here as choreographer creating imaginative, authentic 1940s ensemble dancing that is not imitative of original choreographer Jerome Robbins but respects the roots.

Ken Kimble serves as music director and conductor-pianist of a group of nine first-rate musicians who are at stage rear.

The three sailors at the story's center are Chip, who wants to see New York City using his father's outdated guidebook, Ozzie, who wants to have fun and meet girls, and Gabey, who sees a poster of Miss Turnstiles for May and is determined to meet her. All three sailors go off in different directions to search for Miss Turnstiles. Ozzie heads to the Museum of Modern Art, where the glamorous girl named Ivy Smith purportedly studies painting, but he winds up at the wrong museum where he meets anthropology student Claire de Loon.

Chip is distracted from his goal by brash cabdriver Hildy Esterhazy, who discourages Chip's sightseeing and repeatedly invites him to "Come Up to My Place."

Gabey finds Ivy at Carnegie Hall taking singing lesson from Madame Dilly.

When the sailor trio meets later at Times Square, Ivy is not there, as she has headed to her Coney Island job. The two couples go off with Gabey in search of her, stopping at various clubs along the way.

Summer Garden's production is a musical treat from start to finish with the opening notes of the familiar lines "I feel like I'm not out of bed yet" sung to thrilling perfection by Greg Bosworth. Playing the role of Claire's long-suffering fiance, Judge Pitkin Bridgework, Bosworth delivers a solid comical performance that peaks with his singing "I Understand" before doing his welcome assertive turnaround.

Hannah Thornhill again lights up Summer Garden's stage as she did in her debut in the title role of Thoroughly Modern Millie. As Hildy, Thornhill displays strong comedic talent along with top vocal abilities and fabulous dance skills that set her apart.

As Chip, Jason Vellon proves a worthy dance partner, matching her electric energy.

Ryan Kearney as Ozzie and Monica Anselm as Claire seem made for each other, setting off comic sparks in their "Carried Away" number.

Nathan Bowman, who plays Gabey, is convincing as the lovelorn sailor and gives the role extra spark with his excellent singing, delivering a memorable "Lonely Town," an especially haunting ballad.

Miss Turnstiles is a rather flat character who has done little in her life, which doesn't give Ali Guidry much to work with. Guidry does all she can with the role, providing comic moments along with a few touching ones.

As her often inebriated voice teacher Madame Dilly, Diana Wolf is hilarious, and proves to be a real trouper, having broken her foot only five days before opening night. She moved with her own pizazz. Giddings worked with Wolf to choreograph new routines, which she executes to perfection.

Performances are at 8:30 p.m. weekends at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, 143 Compromise St. Season subscriptions for all three shows are available for $45, and single show tickets are $18 for adults and $15 for students, seniors and groups of 20 or more. Call the Box Office at 410-268-9212 for reservations

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