A night on the town

On The Town | Royal Festival Hall, London
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Ned Sherrin set the tone. The year was 1945 when a cross-dresser was still "an angry wardrobe assistant" and the phrase "I know where you are coming from" was only used "on particularly foggy days". And so on and so much more forth. That year also, of course, marked the climactic stages of the war and America's involvement in it. New York, New York - "a helluva town" (so good they named it twice) - played host to countless servicemen on leave in search of a good time, and pined for those who may never return.

Ned Sherrin set the tone. The year was 1945 when a cross-dresser was still "an angry wardrobe assistant" and the phrase "I know where you are coming from" was only used "on particularly foggy days". And so on and so much more forth. That year also, of course, marked the climactic stages of the war and America's involvement in it. New York, New York - "a helluva town" (so good they named it twice) - played host to countless servicemen on leave in search of a good time, and pined for those who may never return.

To that end, On the Town - Leonard Bernstein's first Broadway musical (a first, too, for lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and choreographer Jerome Robbins) - bowed out with one of the most touching of all show songs, "Some Other Time". "Where has the time all gone to, haven't done half the things we want to - oh well, we'll catch up some other time..."

On the Town is all about playing catch-up. The speed of it is phenomenal, and so, too, is the difficulty of keeping it moving. It's very much a show "on the hoof", in every sense. Bernstein's orchestra struts its considerable stuff, it swaggers and bustles and broods, gyrating to a New York beat that rarely, if ever, lets up. Any band has its work cut out keeping the myriad syncopations in check, leave alone making them kick and swing. The BBC Concert Orchestra had Paul Daniel's demonstrably incisive beat in their favour, but they were split - literally - down the middle to make room for the "semi-staged" action, a decision which only compounded the problems and must have made for "hearing" difficulties. That said, they did pretty well.

It really doesn't get much tougher than this. I'm still not sure that they or Daniel have been around this score long or intensively enough to have truly assimilated its dialect. Let's just say that a sequence like "The Great Lover" (astonishing music for a show of any era, leave alone a Broadway show dated 1945) still had an air of tourism about it.

So did the semi-staging (director Annilese Miskimmon). Without the dance, I'm not sure I see the point. Except, of course, to get people on, off, and across the acres of Festival Hall platform. It all smacked a little bit of Butlins, most of all the light show - though even that had its place: Rajah Bimmy's exotic cooch dancing parlour on Coney Island.

The cast were largely grand. Our sailors, Graham Bickley, Karl Daymond (who should watch his intonation) and Brent Barrett cut the requisite dash, with Barrett's Gabey shining in his two "take home" numbers - "Lonely Town" and "Lucky to Be Me". His easy manner, generous phrasing, and warm-all-over sound was born for this repertoire. So, too, Kim Criswell's Hildy, whose cooking prowess ("I Can Cook Too") never left us in any doubt as to who or what was generally on the menu ("My chickens just ooze"). She made the number sound easy (which it certainly isn't).

Sally Burgess (Claire De Loone) was good, too, leading off the regretful "Some Other Time" most affectingly, and Daniel Washington as her long-suffering Pitkin made something sonorous of a lifetime of "understanding".

Jerome Robbins was, of course, there in spirit, doubtless smiling ruefully at the sight of Gabey (whose foot had been injured in rehearsal) hopping all the way back to the ship.

Further performance tonight, RFH, London SE1, 7.30pm (020-7960 4242)

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