The moral is that a city never dies. Written in 1944, Bernstein’s On the Town is a portrait of a New York that is forever being renewed, with visitors who come and go, new buildings that replace old, and faces on the subway that change by the month.
Similarly, Jude Kelly’s imaginative production for English National Opera, new last year, has returned as full of life as before. There are a few welcome new singers, the conductor Simon Lee kicks up a big band storm in the pit and the amplification has been turned up a notch so that all the dialogue is audible, even if the volume in the songs sets one’s ears ringing.
Like a metaphor for New York, the musical style of On the Town is a melting-pot, too. Here is Bernstein the sassy young metropolitan composer, keen to show us that he has every musical language at his fingertips – not just the brassy jazz numbers but also pastiche Latin American and urban blues, even hangovers of Gershwin and Gilbert and Sullivan.
The great music of the score comes in the dance routines, where Bernstein forges his uniquely brash, American sound. It is easy to imagine how the dance could lift On the Town to a higher expressive level (Jerome Robbins was the original stage choreographer, Gene Kelly did the film). That does not quite happen with Stephen Mear’s gritty choreography, but hearing the dance music played at full throttle by ENO’s full-size symphony orchestra is a thrill worth catching in the theatre.
The three young sailors – Joshua Dallas’s touching Gabey, Sean Palmer’s Chip and Ryan Molloy’s rather hyper Ozzie – are the new faces. Caroline O’Connor again threatens to run off with the show as the hilariously kooky Hildy Esterhazy, strongly supported as before by Lucy Schaufer’s Claire de Loone, Andrew Shore’s priceless Judge Pitkin and the multi- faceted Rodney Clarke. That leaves June Whitfield as the other main newcomer, underplaying the tipsy singing teacher Miss Dilly to delicious effect. It would be pushing it to describe her new show as absolutely fabulous, but it is well on the way.
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