A Fabulous “On the Town” now at Covedale Theatre

Review by Doug Iden

Cincinnati’s Covedale Theater is challenging itself in its final season production with a riotous, dance-filled homage to New York City.  Based upon the ballet Fancy Free originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins of West Side Story fame, On the Town follows three sailors on a 24-hour pass as they careen from one Manhattan landmark to another in 1944 at a frenzied pace to see the town and find women. Fueled by the jazz infused music of then Broadway rookie Leonard Bernstein, this is essentially a love story about New York and environs.  Adolph Green and Betty Comden do triple duty by writing the book and lyrics and appearing as two principal characters (in the original).  

The story opens with two sleepy dockworkers at 6 AM suddenly disrupted by three wartime sailors, Gabey (Christopher Wells), Ozzie (Christopher Arias) and Chip (Gabriel Kanai Nakata) eager to start their day long adventure by singing the rousing “New York, New York”.  Wells, Arias and Nakata are very engaging and immediately draw the audience into their romp through The City.  Chip has a decades old city tour guide and has plotted out their entire escapade.  An inside joke is that many of the highlight landmarks no longer exist or are shadows of their former selves.  

Starting on the subway, we are immediately introduced to the ubiquitous ballet dancing as native New Yorkers in 1940’s dress (designed by Allison Jones) bounce and lurch in the subway car in a prop designed by Brett Bowling.  While riding, Gabey becomes entranced by a poster for Miss Turnstile (Ivy Smith played delectably by Kate Stark).  Gabey decides he needs to find her which starts the roller coaster odyssey through New York and prompts the song “Gabey’s Comin’”.  Based on bio information on the poster, the sailors split up and try to find Ivy in various locations. To aid our sightseeing for non-New Yorkers, Lighting Designer Denny Reed and Bowling team up for a series of lit signs across the top and sides of the stage which tell us where the action is including the Natural History Museum, Times Square, NY docks, Coney Island along with nightclubs such as the Copacabana and the Slam Bang Club.  

Now separated, Chip hails a cab driven by Hildy (Anna Rae Brown) who was just fired for sleeping on the job.  Chip wants to sightsee but Hildy is more interested in romance and sings the signature comic song “Come Up to My Place” with sexy bravado.  Ozzie mistakes the Natural History Museum for the Art Museum and meets Claire De Loone (Debussy, anybody) an anthropologist played by CLP newcomer Kali Marsh who performs the first of several duet versions of “Carried Away” with Ozzie.  

The remainder of the show is a series of mostly comic hijinks as the three couples meet, lose each, find each other, lose each other, etc. all accompanied by Bernstein songs and Comden and Green’s witty lyrics.  There’s not much story here but, in the whirlwind of frenetic dancing, colorful costumes and sets, exuberant actors and comic, although somewhat desperate romantic couplings, who needs a real story?  At its heart, this is a love song to New York which becomes a major character in the show.    

Director/Choreographer Genevieve Perrino and Associate Director/Choreographer Maggie Perrino (a family affair?) have raised the dancing bar at the Covedale with this production since, despite the interesting score, the real star here is the dancing which is primarily ballet but also includes the conga and other nightclub dances.  Each of the principal actors are accomplished dancers (many of them teach) along with Aaron Marshall, Anthony Nocero, Ian Forsgren, Dance Captain Cassidy Steele, Jordan Ward, Sarah Condon, Maria Huey, Alyssa Johnson and Elena Boyd.  The key, though, is that the dancing is not just for entertainment, the movements are integral to telling the story but also add atmosphere.  The dancing and the costuming displays, purely visually, different levels of New Yorkers and the chaotic, hustle and bustle of the city.  There is constant movement in the “city that never sleeps”.  Additional big production numbers include “Carnegie Hall Pavance”, “Times Square Ballet” and “The Real Coney Island”.

It is also a funny show which is, essentially, a series of vignettes showing the sailor’s travels (and travails) and shifting relationships.  Hildy tries to convince Chip that she is domestic while intoning “I Can Cook, Too” before being interrupted by roommate Lucy Schmeeler (played beautifully by Cassidy Steele) who is home unexpectedly with a cold.  Claire’s finance Judge Pitkin (Nick Godfrey) sings “I Understand” when he interrupts Claire and Ozzie in her apartment.  Pitkin’s “understanding” becomes increasingly tested as the show progresses.

The singing was good overall but there seemed to be a few opening night jitters.  Best singing voices were Kate Stark, Kali Marsh and Anna Brown.  The principal males were not as strong.  Wells did a marvelous performance as Buddy in the earlier CLP production of Elf but struggled a bit in the poignant number “Lonely Town”.  The horns were a little sour in the band.

Overall, it was fun to watch a modern recreation of an early Golden Age Broadway production and I laud CLP for taking somewhat of a risk with such a dance-oriented show.  There will be some more challenging shows coming up for them this summer at the Incline and I’m glad to see it.  Incoming talent is also a boon with actors being fed from local college programs such as NKU, Miami and other schools around the state.

So, go On the Town in the “Big Apple” with your out-of-date tour guide by sailing down to the Covedale theater through April 10. For tickets click HERE.