“The trouble with On the Town,” said the irritating man-splainer in the seat behind me, “is that it doesn’t have any memorable tunes.” Steam was rising from both of my ears, but I managed to resist the urge to man-splain right back at him: there are, there really are, some quite fabulous songs in this first musical composed by Leonard Bernstein to a book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green at the age of just twenty-six.

John Wilson conducts <i>On the Town</i> © BBC | Mark Allan
John Wilson conducts On the Town
© BBC | Mark Allan

Anyone who has ever heard Tony Bennett sing Lucky to be Me or Some Other Time (he recorded both with Bill Evans) couldn’t doubt that they are unbelievably powerful creations. These are songs which can and do get properly under your skin. And also, the show’s sprightly not-quite-opener New York, New York with its up-and-down arpeggios doesn’t just fix the show’s prevailing mood of unbounded excitement as three navy ratings are let loose in the big city, it also stays resolutely in the mind.

And yet On the Town has so much else going on, there is a prevalent feeling of such frenetic impatience, these moments can almost go unnoticed. The three sailors don’t have a single moment to waste in their 24 hours in the Big Apple. And the musical means by which Bernstein and conductor John Wilson conveyed all that urgency to have fun, and the sailors’ deadline-bound quest to live life to the full, were to the fore in last night’s performance of the “concert version” of the show.

It was being given on the actual day of the centenary of Bernstein’s birth by the London Symphony Orchestra, in a lively and clever semi-staging directed by Martin Duncan. John Wilson was constantly persuading the orchestra to dig deep and to unearth the riches and miracles in the orchestral writing. The Act 2 sequence of the “Subway Ride to Coney Island” and the “Dream Coney Island” sections was particularly memorable, with vivid orchestration and impassioned echoes of Britten, Puccini, Copland and Stravinsky.

<i>On the Town</i> © BBC | Mark Allan
On the Town
© BBC | Mark Allan

When it comes to producing the sounds of sirens, police whistles, football rattles, bone-jangling xylophones, there is nobody in the world with the innate sense of comic timing of the LSO’s principal percussionist Neil Percy. He certainly gets one of my nods for Man (or person) of the Match.

The inclusion of a narrator in this concert version was essential to explain the action. That brought an unavoidable thought to mind: that the Proms West Side Story two weeks ago could also have done with a similar role. Kelly Shale did an excellent job in the role and helped bring it all to life.

Of the singing/acting principals, I found that Louise Dearman in the role of Hildy (Brunnhilde) Esterhazy outclassed the others with the way she conveyed character, shaped her vocal lines, and brought superb diction, expression and intent to the words. Barnaby Rea delivered the operatic intensity of the role of Judge Pitkin, and in particular the idée fixe of I understand, with panache, once his voice had settled down. The chorus of students from ArtsEd added to this vibrant and colourful show.

Yet what stays in the mind is a double impression: firstly there was the wonderfully madcap headlong pace of the show; it was was impossible not to be carried along by that. And secondly the sheer daring and variety of all that orchestral colour and sass. The score, the orchestra and the conductor were the stars.