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Reviews

<em>On the Town </em>: BBC Prom 57, London Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Wilson
26 Aug 2018

John Wilson takes the Prommers out On the Town

The Hollywood Reporter called it the greatest musical ever produced. Leonard Bernstein had expressed concerns about his first Broadway musical, writing to Aaron Copland, ‘Maybe it will be a great hit, and maybe it will lay the great egg of all time. It’s an enormous gamble’, but in the event, On the Town opened at Broadway’s Adelphi Theatre on 28th December 1944 to rave reviews and laid golden foundation stones for the career paths of its prodigious creators - Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins and writers Adolph Green and Betty Comden, whose average age at the time was twenty-seven.

On the Town : BBC Prom 57, London Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Wilson

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Cast of On the Town

Photo credit: BBC/Mark Allan

 

John Wilson is rapidly becoming an essential ingredient in the Proms season recipe. It’s hard to imagine a year going by without the conductor and his eponymous orchestra entertaining us with a performance or two characterised by slick professionalism, musical precision and kinetic energy. He and his band have already contributed to the BBC’s Bernstein 100 celebrations with a sassy performance of the concert version of West Side Story earlier this month. For his second Proms appearance this year, Wilson teamed up with the LSO, a jaunty cast and the bright-voiced students of ArtsEd for a night on the town that whizzed by with jazzy high-jinks and ear-pleasing appeal.

So, before the praise, the provisos. First, On the Town was a theatrical adaptation of Bernstein and Robbin’s previous collaboration: the thirty-minute ballet, Fancy Free, which had triumphed at the Met. The New York Times headline on 19th April 1944 had read, ‘Ballet by Robbins Called Smash Hit’, and critic John Martin hailed score and choreography: ‘The music by Leonard Bernstein utilizes jazz in about the same proportion that Robbins’ choreography does. It is not in the least self- conscious about it, but takes it as it comes. It is a fine score, humorous, inventive and musically interesting. The whole ballet, performance included, is just exactly ten degrees north of terrific.’ When the romantic adventures of three wide-eyed sailors who find themselves with twenty-four hours to kill in New York - “a helluva town” - before their ship leaves its berth in Brooklyn Navy Yard was transformed into a Broadway show, the narrative was largely dance-driven, as attested by the large proportion of the score of On the Town that is taken up by instrumental interludes which accompany and articulate the balletic narrative.

Indeed, subsequently, when MGM bought the film rights to On the Town, producer Arthur Freed excised most of Bernstein’s songs. Will Friedwald suggests that director Gene Kelly’s ‘primary motivation as one of the film’s stars was to dance to Bernstein’s superlative ballet music; as a first-time director, he apparently didn't feel he had the clout to make the case for the rest of the original score. Neither did Comden and Green--who were importuned to write substitute songs with MGM stalwart Roger Edens--and, remarkably, neither did Sinatra. Betty Comden later told me, in 1994, “Frank said that the only reason he agreed to do the movie was so that he could sing ‘Lonely Town,’” a number that never made it to the film.’ [1]

Kerry Shale.jpg Kerry Shale. Photo Credit: BBC/Mark Allan.

Robbins’ choreography may not be extant, but dance remains integral to the dynamism of the plot and the stylistic expressivity of the musical milieu. The absence of physical embodiment of the narrative in this Proms concert performance was a major hindrance, for the dance binds together the nineteen episodic scenes that carry us across New York. Some attempt at redress was made with the inclusion of a narrator, the experienced Kerry Shale, who, lyric book nestled in the crook of his arm, proved a confident story-teller, suavely linking the musical numbers; but Shale’s larger-than-life delivery only confirmed the problem, particularly in Act 2 when dance numbers predominate over song.

OTT John Wilson.jpgJohn Wilson. Photo Credit: BBC/Mark Allan.

Second, the BBC engineers really do need to modify the ear-splitting amplification of the Proms’ musical theatre presentations. I think the volume and reverb switches were turned down after the first twenty minutes or so, but perhaps my ears, simply and sadly, just became accustomed to the head-churning echoes. The spoken dialogue was particularly deafening initially; and single-line contributions from soloists in the ArtsEd Chorus thundered over the LSO with the stridency of a regimental Sergeant Major.

There were some unintended benefits of the absence of a choreographic narrative though, chiefly that in the extensive instrumental interludes the spotlight was thrown on the music itself: the easeful flow of Bernstein’s poly-stylistic integration and the LSO’s precisely etched delivery of the composer’s jazz, blues and Broadway-vernacular cocktail. Perhaps there was a little less swing and sassiness than we are customarily treated to courtesy of the John Wilson Orchestra: others may disagree, but to my ears the brass didn’t have quite enough raspy brashness and the violin tone, while clear and singing, needed a bit more luscious Broadway schmaltz. In Gabey’s ‘Lonely Town’, Wilson’s left hand went into overdrive in an effort to coax a syrupy sheen and emotive vibrato from the LSO violins, but after the interval he seemed more restrained. That said, individual players and sections - particularly the woodwind and trumpets - played with a precision that highlighted the order and clarity of Bernstein’s musical language and form, no matter the sense of freedom and free will that it conjures. Jazz specialist, saxophonist Howard McGill, tugged the heart-strings. And, nestled at the rear was an inner band of piano (Elizabeth Burley, showing how to honky-tonk), drum-kit, brass and amplified double bass (one rhythm-invigored Laurence Ungless, I think), that brought some brazen vigour to the proceedings.

Students of Arts Ed.jpgStudents from ArtsEd. Photo Credit: BBC/Mark Allan.

I had not been that impressed by the students of ArtsEd during the Proms’ concert version of West Side Story but here the young singers were much more impressively marshalled, choreographically and vocally, and, as city crowds, night club revellers, they had a firmer narrative role too. Uncredited individuals put in fine solo turns: in Act 2, Diana Dream’s parodic blues number, ‘I Wish I Was Dead’, successful trod the fine line between glamorous celebration and satirical parody. The three sailors who appeared in the organ gallery at the close to begin their own twenty-four hours ‘on the town’, delivered their closing salute with military panache and pride.

Stage director Martin Duncan made good use of the Hall’s walkways and stairwells; and the panel frieze offered vistas of New York - its arching, aspiring bridges, the underbelly of the metro, the red lights of its night-life. When Ozzie and the voracious anthropologist Claire de Loone enjoyed their amorous assignation amid the dinosaur fossils, the collapsing animation - complemented by acrobatics from the xylophone player, who simultaneously juggled rattle and whistle - raised the loudest laugh of the night.

The cast demonstrated a unanimous appreciation of Bernstein’s blend of the comedic and the serious. Much is frivolous, but it shouldn’t be flippant. Claire Moore staggered on her red stilettos in stupendous inebriation but we knew she would not topple, and her message to Siena Kelly’s fresh-voiced Ivy Smith - let your artistic dreams and goals be your guiding light, not your romantic whims - spoke surely of the feminist ambitions of the 1940s. Barnaby Rea revealed a terrifically focused low bass as the First Workman in the opening moments and was a sympathetic Judge Pitkin.

Ozzie and Claire.jpg Nadim Naaman (Ozzie) and Celinde Schoenmaker (Claire de Loone). Photo Credit: BBC/Mark Allan.

Nadim Naaman’s Ozzie was fittingly over-the-top without being ridiculously overblown. As Chip, Fra Fee winced with naïve gaucheness when rampant taxi cab driver Hildy launched herself upon him, in their disorderly duet, ‘Come Up To My Place’. Nathaniel Hackmann was an earnest Gabey, singing ‘Lonely Town’ with open-hearted warmth and ‘Lucky To Be Me’ with guileless honesty, but he did not neglect the humour of Gabey’s desperate trawl ‘in search of his gal’ in Act 2.

But, the male characters are largely ‘types’, and it’s the women who, more individualised and independent of spirit, who hog the spotlight. As Hildy Esterhazy, Louise Dearman was assertively but harmlessly predatory, ready to drive a cab or rustle up a cordon bleu dinner with equal élan if it would win her a man. Dearman gave an invigorating rendition of ‘I Can Cook Too’, all brassy assurance with a light-hearted patina, avowing breathlessly that she could “make a magazine cover” and be a “wonderful lover”, as well as “hit the high Cs” - and she did. Celinde Schoenmaker’s more ‘operatic’ Claire de Loone was similarly in command but, despite her tight trouser-suit, more obviously sensual, though Schoenmaker’s beautifully sweet, floating leaps to the top suggested sincerity too.

Chip and Hildy.jpg Fra Fee (Chip) Louise Dearman (Hildy) and Photo Credit: BBC/Mark Allan.

If there was one thing missing, it was the very real sadness and shadows that surely reverberate through the quartet, ‘Some Other Time’, when Chip and Hildy, Ozzie and Claire realise that their day of hunting for their soul mate is over and that they must soon return to their ship and sail off to war, and perhaps to their deaths: “When you're in love/ Time is precious stuff -- /Even a lifetime isn’t enough.”

Claire Seymour

Prom 57: Bernstein - On the Town (concert version)

Barnaby Rea (First Workman/Judge Pitkin), Nadim Naaman (Ozzie), Fra Fee (Chip), Nathaniel Hackmann (Gabey), Siena Kelly (Ivy Smith), Louise Dearman (Hildy), Celinde Schoenmaker (Claire de Loone), Claire Moore (Madame Dilly); John Wilson (conductor), Martin Duncan (stage director), London Symphony Orchestra, Students from ArtsEd.

Royal Albert Hall, London; Saturday 25th August 2018.



[1] In ‘From Ballet to Broadway and Beyond’, Wall Street Journal, October 13th 2014.

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