MUSICALS / A lot of fuss about nothing?

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THE INITIALS of Leonard Bernstein's On the Town are OTT, and that is what it is: loudly, garishly, spectacularly over the top from first to last bar. It is the kind of piece that grabs you by the lapels, pushes you into a corner and yells in your face that you are having a good time.

Even without knowing in advance, you might still guess that On the Town was written at a time of national crisis (specifically the Second World War). The hyped-up, almost unrelieved partying may be convincing if you are prepared to punch your cares in the solar plexus and jump right in, but from even a slight distance there's a perceptible note of anxiety - a background presence in the copious dance sections, but nearer to the surface in the ensemble number 'Some Other Time' and nearer still in the magnificent Coney Island dream sequence.

Fortunately the cast and musicians in Michael Tilson Thomas's semi- staged Barbican Hall performance all threw themselves on to the town with as much heroic determination as the three sailors in the story. It wasn't all glitzy perfection. It was a big plus in historical terms having Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the book and the lyrics, as narrator / commentators. But the careful delivery slowed the Bernstein roller-coaster down, and at one point events and commentary got out of phase - though without that we wouldn't have had a stylish Tilson Thomas and Comden rescue operation.

Otherwise style and energy were kept high and taut throughout. Perhaps Marie McLaughlin's Ivy was a neon sparkle or two short of the ideal 'Miss Turnstiles' (the New York subway belle of the month) but the other two female leads were as raunchy and natural as Bernstein himself could have dreamed. Frederica von Stade's blend of poise and seductiveness made her an ideal Claire de Lune, while Tyne Daly (Lacey from television's Cagney and Lacey) acted strenuously as the equally man-hungry taxi- driver Brunnhilde (Hildy) Esterhazy; her singing was quite impressive too. There wasn't a hint of any clash between Broadway and Opera House, such as made Bernstein's later West Side Story recording such a mixed blessing. Thanks to Daly and von Stade it was quite possible to believe in a New York where 'Hello' is all you need as a chat-up line.

The three sailors were not eclipsed, particularly not Thomas Hampson as the instantly love-struck Gabey, and David Garrison's Ozzie could have come straight off the streets. The advertised 'special appearances' (what does that make the others?) were on the whole the events they should have been: Evelyn Lear's cameo as the schnapps-sodden singing teacher was suitably sour, while Samuel Ramey's Judge Pitkin was the highlight of the evening - all he had to do was enunciate 'Hello, darling' to bring the house down. It is a shame Cleo Laine did not have something juicier to sink her teeth into than the restored nightclub number 'Ain't Got No Tears Left' - understandably left out of the first production.

No doubt about whose show this was, though: you only had to look at Michael Tilson Thomas to see how passionately he loves this score, and the London Symphony Orchestra played with the white-hot intensity and scintillating brilliance that his every gesture cried for. It was thanks to him above all that the event got a reception that would have gratified even Morris Cerullo. But after the cheers were left behind, and the score and performances had been duly admired, the question that remained was, what in essence was it all about? The answer seems to be, not a lot.