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Ryan Molloy as Gabey (ENO -- On The Town)
09 May 2007

On The Town – English National Opera

In a season that will conclude with a new production of Kismet, ENO has once again come under criticism for the number of non-operatic works on the bill.

Leonard Bernstein: On The Town

English National Opera, 23 April 2007
All photos by Laurie Lewis, courtesy of English National Opera


Jude Kelly’s energetic production of Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 musical was originally seen here in 2005 to an extended run of full houses, so it can at least be said to have already proved its worth.

Let loose for 24 hours of shore leave in New York City, three young sailors go in search of some sightseeing and, more importantly, some female company. Small-town boy Gabey (Ryan Molloy) falls in love with a picture of the subway beauty queen (‘Miss Turnstiles’) Ivy Smith and sends his two friends out on a mission to make his romantic dream a reality. En route, virginal Chip (Sean Palmer) and the more worldly Ozzie (Joshua Dallas) quickly manage to land themselves a pair of nymphomaniacs, the taxi-driver Hildy Esterhazy and the archaeologist Claire de Loone – and the group set out ‘on the town’ for the evening before returning to ship.

June Whitfield as Mme. Dilly and Helen Anker as Ivy Smith (ENO -- On The Town)That’s basically it, as far as the plot goes. For all its brass, sex and comedy, the show is a vignette depicting the transience of pleasure in a world where any or all of the young sailors might soon lose their life in battle.

It’s a difficult piece to categorise, almost as much a ballet as it is a musical; the high-octane comedy numbers are balanced by romance and poignancy in songs including ‘Lucky to be Me’, ‘Lonely Town’ and ‘Some Other Time’. The dance numbers didn’t work too well in 2005, but this time Stephen Mear’s choreography is slick and energetic. Simon Lee’s conducting also seems snappier and more together than on the first hearing.

Coney Island scene (ENO -- On The Town)The three ladies all returned from the previous run. Caroline O’Connor’s Hildy was a ballsy dominatrix with a voice to match. As Claire, the American Lucy Schaufer, a very versatile performer (she’s also a Handelian mezzo) combined slinky dance moves with a glorious vocal range including some terrific operatic high notes, and Helen Anker’s Ivy was sweet, graceful and ingenuous. Conversely, the three male leads were new to the production and, despite energetic performances and some attractive singing, were left somewhat in the shade of the ladies – in fact the only really memorable performance came from ENO regular Andrew Shore as Lucy’s long-suffering fiancé, Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework.

Also new was the veteran British comic actress June Whitfield, in a memorably brilliant performance as Ivy’s bohemian alcoholic voice teacher Madame Dilly, while Janine Duvitski returned to give a touching comic account of Lucy Schmeeler, Hildy’s homely roommate who eventually finds a perfect match of her own.

Robert Jones’s ingenious sets rely mainly on outline forms to capture every situation - the dockyard, Hildy’s cab, the subway, the Museum of Natural History, Hildy’s and Claire’s tiny apartments crammed together in typically urban style, the sequence of night-spots, Coney Island.

Ruth Elleson © 2007

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