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REVIEW: Prom 57 – Leonard Bernstein: On the Town

On the Town at the BBC Proms
Photo credit: BBC/Mark Allan

BBC Prom 57: Leonard Bernstein, On the Town
(Royal Albert Hall, 25 August 2018. Review by Leah Williams.)

On what would have been Bernstein’s 100th birthday, and as the armistice also approaches its centenary, what better way to mark this than with his first ever full-length musical On the Town? Created in 1944 in collaboration with friends – and then-unknown greats – Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, it was a musical made to delight against a backdrop of difficult times. And indeed it is light-hearted and uplifting, but it is also filled with a rich tapestry of genius moments that reveal what a pool of talent this group represented.

Doing it considerable justice, every moment of this BBC Proms concert version was infused with charisma, laughter and faultless performances. With fantastically forward-thinking writing, the plot follows three sailors in the Big Apple for one day of shore leave who find their subsequent time “on the town” dominated by strong, driven and hilarious women. With some overt role reversals, the unsuspecting men are seduced, led from nightclub to nightclub and then kissed and waved off by their new love interests.

Each character, from the lead roles through to the more peripheral figures, is full of nuance and memorable – if slightly farcical – detail. And all were displayed with comedic skill by yesterday’s cast, who threw themselves into the story whole-heartedly, embracing the slapstick and the serious equally. Similarly, every comedic motif was used to great effect, from the poor duped fiancé Pitkin’s timely entrances to the snivelling Lucy Schmeeler’s sneezes. One liners such as “sex and art don’t mix; if they did I’d have made it straight to the top” from Madame Dilly gained deserved big laughs.

Chip (Fra Free) and Hildy (Louise Dearman)
On the Town at the BBC Proms
Photo credit: BBC/ Mark Allan

Stage Director Martin Duncan is to be applauded for the brilliantly evocative yet minimal staging that whisked us away on the gang’s 24-hour adventure. Whether it’s Hildy’s comic use of a simple chair while effectively kidnapping the innocent Chip in her ‘taxi’ (above) or the projection of a dinosaur skeleton that later gets ‘knocked over’ in the throes of passion, the story was brought to colourful life with minimal fuss. If anything, tonight’s performers showed us that this musical is so sharply written that it barely requires any staging to allow the audience to suspend all reality and climb aboard.

John Wilson conducting On the Town
Photo credit : BBC/ Mark Allan

Who better to showcase the many dimensions of this super fun musical than conductor John Wilson, who is rightly lauded in the programme “for the vivid nature of his interpretations and the rich and colourful sounds he draws from orchestras”? The man for this job indeed. Under his expert baton, the ever-wonderful London Symphony Orchestra shone. Bernstein’s compositions play with the jazzy undertones that infused a lot of the music of the time, with beautiful, muted trumpet solos and whimsical turns of phrase creating a sound that defies being boxed into the ‘musical’ category too readily. A chance for the orchestra’s versatility to be fully showcased, with every section embodying the distinct energy of Bernstein’s music as it moved from jaunty and playful to lush and sweeping. The percussion section in particular played their roles as ‘foley artists’ excellently, really adding to the evocation of the era.

While there were many Proms debuts tonight, all the lead cast members are highly experienced across stage and screen – and it showed. Nathaniel Hackmann playing Gabey was especially seductive, with dulcet tones that transported us back to the golden Kelly and Sinatra era; the evening’s first ballad Lonely Town captivating all 6,000 members of the full-to-capacity audience.

A thoroughly enjoyable and impressive performance, On the Town kicked off the BBC Proms “bank-holiday Bernstein weekend” in serious style.

LINK: On the Town from the BBC Proms on iPlayer

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