Dance: 10, Book: 3
Music Saves the Day in 5th Avenue's On the Town
The 1944 musical comedy On the Town brought the Broadway debuts of several showbiz giants. First and foremost: Leonard Bernstein, who created his first Broadway score by expanding Fancy Free, the ballet he'd made with legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins, about three navy sailors on 24-hour shore leave in New York City. For On the Town, this plot was fleshed out with a book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who'd go on to write dozens of wit-drenched scripts for stage and screen (most notably Singin' in the Rain), but who were at the time merely the most promising members of a New York comedy troupe beloved by Bernstein.
Sixty-six years later, 5th Avenue Theatre revives On the Town as part of Seattle's yearlong multimedia celebration of Bernstein, and the emphasis on the music is perfectly fitting. The pairing of Bernstein's fun house of a score with Robbins's pop ballet (here choreographed by Bob Richard) is On the Town's reason for being. To execute the show's ambitious dance elements, 5th Avenue has wisely paired with Spectrum Dance Theater, whose dancers are responsible for the night's most ravishing sequences—recurrent Bernstein melodies swelling around earthy bursts of ballet, expertly lit by Tom Sturge, whose bold, emotional design is a crucial component of the show's success.
And then there's the script, a spritzy, high-jinks-laden piffle by the fledgling Comden and Green, which the 5th Avenue cast tackles with cartoonish gusto. As a love-starved cabbie with a heart of gold, Seattle favorite Sarah Rudinoff hits another home run, casually belting out the carnal "I Can Cook, Too" and navigating the cheesy skit-scenes with an easy wit. But the show's male leads—as our trio of celebrating sailors—offer high-energy performances that go no deeper than a comic strip. These are Young American Servicemen as seen on the Cracker Jack box, expressing emotions through whoops and leaping heel-clicks. Their one-note performances significantly hobble the plot. The wartime darkness surrounding On the Town's illuminated parade is addressed both directly (in a battlefield dreamscape sequence) and obliquely (via the female characters' loneliness and sexual hunger), but is almost entirely absent from the servicemen themselves. That lack makes On the Town a fitting tribute to Leonard Bernstein, but keeps the show from being a vibrant piece of 21st-century theater.