A brilliantly cheeky and vivacious Valentine to New York's energy and a giddy celebration of demob happiness, On the Town has long been high on my wish list of musical revivals. The 1949 movie adaptation (with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly) is amiable and rumbustious, but bastardised and a couple of pips short of the full Big Apple.
Focusing on the misadventures of three sailors on 24 hours' shore leave, this dance-driven 1944 show, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Comden and Green, first hit the London stage in 1963 when it surprisingly flopped. A superb early 1990s recording, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, established beyond question that the music is out of this world. Now we get the rare chance to see a fully staged version of the (almost) complete score in Jude Kelly's revival for English National Opera.
Her exuberant production has some pretty puzzling aspects to it. I can understand the desire, in Robert Jones's design, to get away from the clichéd skyscraper look. I am also aware that there are some iconic images of New York construction workers balanced on vertiginous girders. But the result here - with gloomy red metal bars lifted around on hooks to create everything from subway trains to dives, and with the rash of red hats and bags in the crowd scenes - put me in mind more of Constructivism and Soviet Moscow than a conventional idea of Manhattan.
The verve and brightness that give the sailors such a buzz are missing, visually, until the Coney Island sequence near the end. Some of the humour is also forced, to the point where you suspect that the production is underestimating the urban savvy of its audience. And there's too little joyous overlapping between episodes.
Major compensation comes in the shape of the electrifying orchestra, under the baton of Simon Lee. Has there ever been music that pulsates with such happy-go-lucky sexuality as that which Bernstein provides in this great score? When the brass section here rears up into full-bodied swing or when the whole ensemble weaves through one of those raunchy yet brooding mood passages, you feel you have died and gone to heaven.
On a slightly lest celestial plain, Stephen Mear's gifted choreography is a bit too arty for my taste in the dream ballet sequences, but when the horny sailors twirl and leap with their delicious, synchronised grace, you are in no doubt that this is what musical comedy was put on the planet to do.
Caroline O'Connor is spot on as the hilariously sex-hungry cabbie - both vocally and in her dancing, while Sylvia Syms, looking like some bedraggled bird of paradise, is a hoot as the squiffy singing teacher. It's orchestrally, though, that this On the Town is bang on the money.
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