On the Town

Toward the end of every season, the San Francisco Symphony puts on a really big show: a semi-staged opera, a concert version of a musical, or a festival built around the music of a composer (or two). More often than not these extravaganzas turn out to be a highlight of the year, featuring prominent guest artists along with video projections, additional lighting, and stage elements, transforming the interior of Davies Symphony Hall into something new and unexpected. This year's model, a marvelous concert version of Leonard Bernstein's On the Town, continued the winning streak with a big, splashy production, a talented cast, and some fantastic playing from the musicians.

 The San Francisco Symphony with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, perform Bernstein's "On The Town." On Wednesday night, May 25, 2016 in Davies Symphony Hall.

I don't know if it's the break from the routine of playing the usual subscription concert format, the enthusiasm Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas brings to these projects (especially when it comes to Bernstein's music), or if the higher stakes and number of people involved affords the orchestra extra rehearsal time to get it all together, but for a number of years in a row these shows have grown increasingly rewarding. Next season there are two -- in January there's a semi-staged version of Mahler's Das klagende Lied, and at the end of June there are performances of Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet (tickets go on sale July 18).

The musical On the Town began as the ballet Fancy Free, the first successful collaboration between Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins. The ballet's debut during April of 1944 was such a huge success it was adapted into On The Town before the year was over. V-E Day was still a year away, and the musical's ability to capture the live-in-the-moment ethos of horny young sailors on leave in a city of attention-starved women, along with Bernstein's uncanny talent at rendering the character of New York City in sound, struck a chord with audiences hungry for something light, fun, sexy, and hopeful. The result was a hit that ran for more than a year on Broadway, closing six months after the end of WWII, and was made into a film in 1949 (starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, who also starred in the similarly-themed film Anchors Aweigh in 1945), though the film's producers cut much of Bernstein's music.

In 1992 Tilson Thomas, working with Charlie Harmon and David Israel, created a new concert version of the score from various sources which included numbers cut from the original. Premiered that year in London by MTT and his former band the London Symphony Orchestra, the material proved once again to be a hit. MTT brought it here for a single night in 1996, and then waited 20 years to bring it back.

I have no idea why it took such a long time for him to revive it, but it was probably a wise choice. I didn't attend the 1996 concert, which featured a pretty starry cast (including Frederica von Stade, Tyne Daly, and Thomas Hampson), and narration by Adolph Green and Betty Comden, the creators of the original book and lyrics, but according to Josh Kosman a great time was had by all. But don't feel too bad if you missed it: what the SF Symphony is capable of bringing to a show like this in 2016 is far more impressive than what they were doing 20 years ago. And this time they went all out.

Green and Comden are no longer with us, so this time the narration was handled by Green's Tony-nominated lyricist/composer/performer daughter Amanda Green, and Broadway veteran/opera singer/performer David Garrison. Also on hand were the stars of the recent 2014 Broadway revival of the show: the trio of sailors performed by Clyde Alves (Ozzie), Jay Armstrong Johnson (Chip), Tony Yazbeck (Gabey); Megan Fairchild as Ivy, and Alysha Umphress as Hildy.

In a bit of luxury casting, the soprano Isabel Leonard performed the role of the man-ravenous Claire. The Merola Opera Program's Artistic Director Sheri Greenawald gamely took on the Madame Maude P. Dilly (with more than enough comedic flair to make one wish we saw her on stage more often around here). Shuler Hensley portrayed multiple roles, including Claire's "understanding" partner Pitkin with wit and a booming voice, while Peabody Southwell of Chromatic performed the parts of Diana Dream and Dolores Dolores and designed the costumes.

The show was directed and designed by Chromatic's James Darrah, who also helmed the recent SoundBox show Obsession and Creation and the Symphony's magnificent of production of Britten's Peter Grimes last year. A handful of dancers added an important element Kosman noted was missing in 1996 (what's a wartime musical without some dancing?). The singing was superb, as was the Chromatic team's lighting, stage design, and projections on a backdrop of the New York skyline that ranged from a glowing neon ferris wheel to black and white newsreel footage.

However, it was Tilson Thomas and the orchestra who continuously riveted the ears with a dazzling, vibrant, yet capacious performance which made the 72-year-old musical come forcefully alive. Yazbeck, Leonard, Umphress, and Southwell were all outstanding amid the top-notch cast, and Green displayed a deep arsenal of talents, but the musical highlights were Bernstein's instrumental passages, where sections of the score reach the heights he later achieved in West Side Story. In one the most rewarding musical performance I've heard from the orchestra so far this season, and certainly the most surprising, Tilson Thomas brought an enthusiasm to the music from start to finish, adding subtle flourishes such as turning the nod to Puccini in "Lonely Town" to an enthusiastic little wave, then suddenly cutting loose in the following "High School Girls/ Lonely Town Pas de Deux," before closing out Act One with an electric "Times Square Finale."

Even the sexy Peabody, doing her best to snatch the show in the beginning of Act Two with hilarious takes on "I Wish I Was Dead," was no match for MTT as he kept twisting the throttle back and forth through "Slam Bang Blues" and the following pieces of chase music, then dialing it down again in a poignant rendition of "Some Other Time" before bringing it all to an exuberant climax 24 hours later in the story. It felt like we joined the trio of sailors for their long night out on the prowl and seeing the sites, and had a blast. 

If you liked this, like A Beast on Facebook for more. All photos by Stefan Cohen.