I notice the Metro newspaper couldn’t decide whether to give Bat Out of Hell one star or five stars, and in the end plumped, strangely, for both. I am tempted to go the same way for this production of On The Town. It’s lovely. It’s filled with some wonderful dancing – just mention the name Drew McOnie to those who pay attention to the movers and shakers in the world of musical theatre, and it comes as no surprise that his direction and choreography are utterly first rate. His cast in this production is more than diverse enough to satisfy certain navel-gazing white critics who hate all-white casts. Or it would be, if they weren’t so relentlessly miserable come what may.
Why was I fleetingly tempted to consider a one star review? Because, goodness me, it drags. Too often I was left waiting for a dance sequence to finish so hopefully the story can go on. While the many dances were technically proficient, performed by a cast that made it all look so effortless, they didn’t seem to have much heart. There was more passion in Mark Heenehan’s Pitkin W. Bridgework standing and singing ‘I Understand’ than in some of the dance routines. They were so polished, so perfect, so professional, they were, in places, coming up short in terms of audience engagement. A work of fine art, yes, but one that doesn’t really say anything. While the dance routines were going on, narrative progression stops. I couldn’t work out, either, the significance of many of the movements or what certain characters were supposed to be doing or depicting.
Now, had this been Sadler’s Wells, or the Peacock Theatre, and I was watching a dance performance, I wouldn’t have minded. I would actually have enjoyed trying to decipher what was happening. But with musical numbers and extended spoken word scenes telling the audience all it needs to know, and then some, the dance routines come across as wholly unnecessary, utterly superfluous, and to be blunt, a could have been truncated. Though the one about a sailor who falls in love with a man should be retained, a demonstration of the love that dares not speak its name.
The company, truth be told, do a splendid job. The stop-start flow of the narrative (‘Come Up To My Place’, in which a taxi stops and starts, stops and starts, being a metaphor for the show as a whole) was rather frustrating, particularly as some (and by no means all) the humour in the show, when the dialogue is permitted to flow freely, brings the house down, even if it is shallow and predictable. An example: “Sex and art don’t mix. If they did, I’d have gone straight to the top.”
Madame Dilly (Maggie Steed) is a case in point. Oh joy! That general category of women past menopausal age portrayed as selfish, uncompromising and out of touch – yes, that’s original. Not. The younger women are at least well written as characters. Relatively speaking. Claire (Miriam-Teak Lee, making her professional debut in this production) sings so beautifully. Hildy (Lizzy Connolly), a taxi driver, entices her chosen sailor, Chip (Jacob Maynard) quite convincingly. Ivy (Siena Kelly) is a combination of vulnerable and sassy, the former down to her natural persona and the latter down largely to her day job (or should that be ‘night job’?).
It’s a tremendous effort, really. It just didn’t have enough sparkle to be anything more than very good dancing filling out a paper-thin plot. An American In Paris, at the Dominion Theatre at the time of writing, does it better.