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Aisle View: Lenny's New York in the Berkshires

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The Bronx is up and Pittsfield is way up, between the Mass. Pike and Vermont. But the Barrington Stage production of On the Town handily catches the pace, and the pulse, of Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's 1944 musical comedy.

This is the one about the three gobs on twenty-four leave in New York, New York, that helluva town. Got to see the whole town from Yonkers on down to the bay, in just one day, so they make a slapdash jaunt in search of -- what else? -- girls. What made this out of the ordinary at the time was that there was a war on; Gabey, Chip and Ozzie, when the clock once more strikes 6AM, will be shipped back overseas. This was not some showbiz fiction; many audience members had family or friends somewhere across the Atlantic or the Pacific.

On the Town was something new, brash, fresh, and like a splash of poster paint in a sea of black & white billboards. It was also unexpected. A musical with five modernistic ballets? From first-time producers with a first-time composer, lyricist, librettist and choreographer? And no stars? The show was booked into the Adelphi -- Broadway's biggest jinx house -- hidden away on 54th Street. A fast hit, it soon moved down to Shubert Alley.

But On the Town turned out to have a short shelf-life. M-G-M's 1949 motion picture version -- starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra -- kept Comden and Green as screenwriters but summarily ejected most of Bernstein's score. (To make matters even more embarrassing for Lenny, the replacement composers received the Oscar for Best Musical Score.) Given that the film was seen by the multitudes, it instantly became the On the Town of record; there was not even a full cast album of the Broadway version.

Bernstein's subsequent career -- and particularly the Broadway success of the 1957 West Side Story -- convinced his label to fund a full recording in 1960, conducted by the composer and featuring three of the original stars. This put the show back on the subway map, as it were, and placed it on the minor-but-acknowledged classic shelf. Bernstein's continued lionization resulted in not one but two big-budget, flashy Broadway revivals of On the Town.

Both misguided, both attempting to disguise the charming innocence of the material with a more sophisticated modern view, and both stumbling upon the built-in problem of the show: those five big ballets. Jerome Robbins, the newcomer who choreographed and devised the show in 1944, turned out to be a natural-born genius. The revivals in 1971 (headed by Ron Field of Applause) and 1998 (from the almost-always brilliant director George C. Wolfe), without Jerry's high-leapin' sailors, never got off the ground. Each had sharp comic performances from ladies who seemed to succeed despite their material -- Bernadette Peters in the first, Lea DeLaria and Mary Testa in the second -- but the show itself appeared dated, mirthless and unworkable.

The present Barrington Stage Company revival, at the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage in Pittsfield through July 13, presents an altogether different picture. Without adding layers of nostalgia or smothering it with intellectual oversight, it turns out that On the Town is -- at root, and still after 70 years -- fun. The songs, given half a chance, remain effervescent; the sketchy comedy stuff, done on its own terms by actors who are not trying to be anything but true to the material, works like a charm.

Serving as ringleader is director John Rando, who has given us some lively musical comedy over the years (including the 2001 Urinetown and the 2012 Christmas Story). This is not Rando's first On the Town; he clearly laid the groundwork with an Encores concert version in 2008. That production used reconstructions of the three extant Robbins numbers, with the rest coming from Warren Carlyle. Barrington Stage has brought in Josh Bergasse, of Smash, who does a more than decent job considering that he only had a slim dance corps and a fraction of the necessary rehearsal time. His ballets -- although sometimes severely truncated -- are filled with unbottled energy and Robbins-like leaps. What's more, his three main sailors are very much a part of the dance show.

The singing/dancing/acting sailors in question are Tony Yazbeck, Clyde Alves and Jay Armstrong Johnson. The comedy is well handled by Alves (as the "prehistoric specimen" who cavorts at the Museum of Natural History) and Johnson (as the sightseeing gob hijacked by a man-hungry taxi lady). Yazbeck plays the lonely and relatively normal sailor, doing a compelling job with his two big solos ("Lonely Town" and "Lucky to Be Me") and his work in the ballets. So much so that the audience cares about him and his character, and thus wholeheartedly buys into the show. Yazbeck is the one holdover from Rando's Encores production. Good then, he is even stronger now.

They are more than matched by the principal comediennes, Elizabeth Stanley as the studious anthropologist who gets "carried away" by her he-man and Alysha Umphress, "cookin' with gas" as the cabdriver who can cook too. Stanley is a familiar Broadway face, as are most of her featured cohorts. Umphress, on the other hand, was new to me and a delightful surprise.

Rando also gives us two veteran hams. Nancy Opel, not unsurprisingly, has a field day as the dipso vocal coach. They also have her double as a lugubrious nightclub singer, allowing her to offer one of the funniest takes I've seen of late. Michael Rupert essays the stuffy Judge Pitkin, and he is the only person I've ever seen anywhere who actually makes "I Understand" work. In this he is assisted by another droll clown, Allison Guinn as sneezing roommate Lucy Schmeeler.

On the Town with youthful high spirits from the music, empathy from the actors, and comedy firing on all cylinders. "New York, New York" in Pittsfield, well worth the trip up the Taconic.