Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town is one of those charming, dated musicals that doesn’t get revived as often as it deserves. Nothing much happens: in 1944, three sailors (Gabey, Chip and Ozzie) have one day to explore New York. They all find women (Ivy, Hildy and Claire) and fall a little bit in love, but at the end of the day, they must return to their ship while another batch of sailors disembarks to take in this “helluva town”. At San Francisco Symphony, an expressive reading of Bernstein’s sweeping score and great performances all around turned a simple story into a riveting evening.

Jay Armstrong Johnson, Alysha Umphress, Megan Fairchild, Tony Yazbeck, Clyde Alves, Isabel Leonard © Stefan Cohen
Jay Armstrong Johnson, Alysha Umphress, Megan Fairchild, Tony Yazbeck, Clyde Alves, Isabel Leonard
© Stefan Cohen

The great luxury of seeing this musical at the symphony is, of course, hearing the music (including a number usually cut). It’s rare for musicals to be played by full orchestras, especially of this caliber, and Bernstein’s rich writing shines in such a setting. The songs range from classical to jazzy in style, with lots of opportunities for the brass of the San Francisco Symphony to show off their sturdy tone and impeccable timing. After a slow start, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas kept the pace dramatic and the sections well coordinated. The long orchestral introduction to Coney Island in the second act was especially masterful, with a catchy beat handed off cleanly between the brass, percussion, and strings.

The concert was billed as “semi-staged”, but I struggle to imagine what a full staging would be if this is only “semi”! Silhouette cut-outs of New York buildings form a screen for scene-setting projections by Adam Larsen. Peabody Southwell’s black-and-white costumes continue the theme, with both simple sailor outfits and cute period dresses incorporating the city skyline into their designs. Although the orchestra occupies the center of the stage, forcing the action to take place around them, all of the blocking seems entirely natural. And the dancing! Most unexpectedly for a symphony concert, every number is impeccably choreographed by Joshua Bergasse with a mixture of ballet and jazz dance. The triple-threat cast wows, especially Ivy (Megan Fairchild) in her balletic introduction and her lift- and dip-filled pas de deux with Gabey (Tony Yazbeck).

Megan Fairchild (Ivy) and dancers © Stefan Cohen
Megan Fairchild (Ivy) and dancers
© Stefan Cohen

In fact, there isn’t a casting misstep in the whole show. Yazbeck leads as Gabey, ably dancing with his elusive Ivy and singing his solos in a velvety tone with smooth legato but crisp consonants. Alysha Umphress is an audience favorite for her brassy belt and forward demeanor as the cab driver Hildy, earning thunderous applause for her showpiece “I Can Cook Too”. As her sailor Chip, Jay Armstrong Johnson holds his own with clear, sensitive singing. Operatic mezzo Isabel Leonard (Claire) stands out for her vibrato and range. She has nice, beefy bottom notes and ringing top notes in “Carried Away”. Her sailor Ozzie (Clyde Alves) matches her well in duets and proves very talented at tossing her over his shoulder.

Jay Armstrong Johnson (Chip), Tony Yazbeck (Gabey) and Clyde Alves (Ozzie) © Stefan Cohen
Jay Armstrong Johnson (Chip), Tony Yazbeck (Gabey) and Clyde Alves (Ozzie)
© Stefan Cohen

In the smaller roles, Shuler Hensley makes an impression as Claire’s put-upon fiancé Pitkin with his mock-dramatic number, “I Understand”, delivered in a thunderous, over-darkened bass with absurd rolled r’s. As the drunken singing teacher Madame Dilly, Sheri Greenwald spouts off-key aria fragments and wry words of wisdom (“Sex and art don’t mix. If they did, I would have gone straight to the top”) with obvious relish. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus, led by Ragnar Bohlin, creates a full, blended sound and acts engagingly even from the side balconies. The women of the chorus are especially seductive in “Gabey’s Comin’”. Amanda Green and Clyde Alves hold the show together, narrating the action and playing all the minor characters with dizzyingly sudden changes of age, demeanor, and accent.

The one (minor) flaw in a perfect show is the occasional sound balancing problem. The singers were drowned out by the orchestra in “New York, New York”. Other numbers like “I Can Cook Too” are audible but lose some of their punch because of the over-emphasis on the instrumental accompaniment. Still, that’s a small quibble with a performance that has everything good – the playing, the singing, the acting, the dancing, and the score. This is one helluva show!