Entertainment » Theatre

Six of Boston’s Brightest Stage Stars Go ’On the Town’

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday May 14, 2013

"On the Town" started life as a World War II-era stage musical based on a ballet called "Fancy Free." If that's new information to you, it's little wonder, given the popularity of the 1949 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film adaptation starring Gene Kelly.

Even though the stage version boasted songs by Leonard Bernstein (who also wrote the music for the ballet), only a few of Bernstein's tunes survived the transition from stage to film. Almost all of the songs in the movie version were the work of Bernstein collaborator Roger Edens.

The original stage version has been resurrected a couple of times on Broadway, once in the early 1970s and again in the late 1990s. But Bostonians won't have to wait for the Great White Way to restage the play a third time; thanks to the Lyric Stage Company, local theatregoers will have a chance to see it starting May 10. Adding to the twofold excitement of seeing a Leonard Bernstein musical, and seeing it at the Lyric, which earns its reputation for first-rate theater season after season, there's an added spark that comes from the fact that the Lyric recently nabbed three IRNEs for its production of "Avenue Q."

Indeed, the six principle cast members of "On the Town" include two alumni of Lyric's "Avenue Q," John Ambrosino and Phil Tayler. The cast also showcases Boston theater talents Aimee Doherty, Michele DeLuca, Zachary Eisenstat, and Lauren Gemelli.


EDGE chatted with the cast about the play, taking note of the fact that it was written seventy years ago -- well before their time, but not, perhaps, before the time of their grandparents. It’s not unusual for actors to work with material written decades or even centuries ago (if not millennia, in the case of the Greek tragedies), but a play with a provenance on the edges of living memory (and hailing from a time still very much alive in our cultural recollection) must surely pose some special joys and problems.

"There is a specific stylization to performance in this time period that I feel is inherent in the script," noted Ambrosino, who plays Gabey, one of a trio of sailors looking to enjoy a final day-long leave in New York before heading off to sea and, in all likelihood, battle.

"The style of the period was a little heightened in terms of quality," Ambrosino added, "so I am conscious of that in creating the character. Other than that, these are real characters with real wants and needs, and I am approaching playing these characters as I would any other role."

"The material is wonderful," said DeLuca, who plays Brunhilde, or Hildy, one of the three women to whom the sailors pay court. "The music and lyrics are written by some of the best that have ever been in musical theater." Her character, noted DeLuca, is "a cab driver that is a little starved for male attention, and who has a thing for men in uniform. Pretty much sums up my life," DeLuca added, with a laugh. The material may be rooted in the early 1940s, but Hildy has a modern streak: "She is a strong woman doing what a man would have been doing in the time but she is also very girly when she wants to be."

Doherty’s character, Clair, is also a woman ahead of her time -- a scientist in an age when female professionals were viewed with skepticism by their male counterparts. "I was taken aback at how advanced the female characters are compared to what I imagined they would be before I dove into the script," Doherty told EDGE. "Clair is a college-educated scientist who is writing a book, and who is very aggressive when it comes to romantic relationships. That surprised me."

"I think the beautiful thing about ’On the Town’ is that even though it’s a period piece, its themes are timeless," observed Gemelli, who plays Ivy, a.k.a. "Miss Turnstiles," the poster girl for the New York subway system. "It’s really about connection (read: sex)," Gemelli added. "These three guys have 24 hours on shore, and all they want to do is meet women.... They want to go out in big, bad New York City and meet a New York City girl. It’s about living in the moment, appreciating the present, because all these characters know that at 6 a.m., those boys are getting back on the ship.

"Nothing in the show is so ’vintage’ that I can’t relate to it," Gemelli continued, noting that she could "definitely identify with" Ivy: "she’s a girl working hard to better herself. To train in the arts. Not too much of a stretch for me."


Then there’s the nostalgia element. After all, our modern, televisual age remains saturated with images and sounds from a global struggle for freedom that we still look back on with immense pride, maybe even wistfulness. A young actor need not have seen World War II in person to have soaked up a touch of that shared sense of looking back with a mixture of fondness and fascination.

"There is definitely a sense of nostalgia," reckoned Eisenstat, who plays a sailor named Ozzie. "The book itself is written in a style that isn’t common these days. To make the phrasing and comedy work, you need to adopt a sense of the time. That said, my sense of nostalgia for times I never lived are really based on film, literature, and the tall tales of my grandparents and their friends. I am not actively trying to bring anyone specific to life on stage, but am aware of my personal sense of that era."

Doherty, too, relied on family lore when pondering the material. "My dad was an Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam and my grandfather fought in Korea," she said, "so I have thought of stories my farther and grandfather have told me from their tours. But also, I have thought of stories my grandmother told me of what she went though when my grandfather was away, and letters my mom wrote to my dad while he was in Vietnam."


Then there’s the nostalgia element. After all, our modern, televisual age remains saturated with images and sounds from a global struggle for freedom that we still look back on with immense pride, maybe even wistfulness. A young actor need not have seen World War II in person to have soaked up a touch of that shared sense of looking back with a mixture of fondness and fascination.

"There is definitely a sense of nostalgia," reckoned Eisenstat, who plays a sailor named Ozzie. "The book itself is written in a style that isn’t common these days. To make the phrasing and comedy work, you need to adopt a sense of the time. That said, my sense of nostalgia for times I never lived are really based on film, literature, and the tall tales of my grandparents and their friends. I am not actively trying to bring anyone specific to life on stage, but am aware of my personal sense of that era."

Doherty, too, relied on family lore when pondering the material. "My dad was an Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam and my grandfather fought in Korea," she said, "so I have thought of stories my farther and grandfather have told me from their tours. But also, I have thought of stories my grandmother told me of what she went though when my grandfather was away, and letters my mom wrote to my dad while he was in Vietnam."


Another source of information was the classic film itself, despite its departures from the play, especially in the music department. Some of the cast looked to the film, while others avoided screening it.

"I haven’t seen the film in years and will not watch it," Ambrosino said. "I don’t want to be influenced by Gene Kelly’s interpretation."

DeLuca had a different approach. "I did watch the movie," she said, "but mostly for the style of the time period, and not so much for the character. I wanted Hildy to come from me and not Betty Garrett (Hildy in the movie). Also, my biggest song was cut out of the movie, so I love making that my own."

"I did reference the movie when I was doing my research for my audition for ’On the Town,’ Gemelli recollected. "Generally, I do watch the film of a show I’m working on, especially if I’m not already familiar with the show." But Gemelli is also thinking about how familiar the audience might be with a given work of theater: "Sometimes all an audience knows of a show, they know from seeing the movie," she noted. "It’s important for me to know what the audience is probably familiar with coming in."

When thinking of other stage productions, "I do go online to watch clips of other productions to get a feel of how others have presented the piece," Gemelli added. "I don’t watch to consciously decide to steal or avoid what another actress is doing. I watch to get a sense of who the character is for them to help figure out who she is for me."

Then there are the inevitable (and, in this case, quite marked) variations between stage and film versions: "The show and film of ’On the Town’ are vastly different, for my character especially," Gemelli pointed out.

"While I enjoyed the film, I have to say that it didn’t influence how I approached the character at all," Doherty said. "None of my characters songs are the same in the movie, and I think ’Carried Away’ is a linchpin for the character of Clair. I built most of my character around information I gleaned from that song. It’s a shame the movie only used two songs from the play."

Eisenstat found the film useful, but not in the way one might expect; he pointed to it "as a reference to explain the show to people," but, he added, "I have not taken anything from it. I look forward to seeing it after the show ends, but I have intentionally avoided watching it."


Theater is an evolving medium, as is music; the way the two are put together can be as changeable over time as those elements themselves. What’s it like for the cast to be singing those venerable songs Bernstein wrote, some of which have found their way into the Great American Song Book?

"Glorious!" Ambrosino declared. "Singing these Bernstein songs is so wonderful."

"My experience with musical theater is limited," Eisenstat said. "This is only my second musical, and in the last one I didn’t sing that much, so I have little to reference it to. That said, it has been challenging and very educational working on the show... I couldn’t be more pleased to be taking this crash course in musical theater with songs by Leonard Bernstein!"

"It’s wonderful working on this material," Gemelli said. "I don’t look at any of this as ’old.’ It’s classic, timeless. Though I don’t sing in the production, I do have the pleasure of dancing quite a bit."

"I love singing in general," DeLuca enthused, "so any opportunity I have to do it makes me happy. Also these songs, especially ’Some Other Time,’ are so rich and create such wonderful images, they make it easy to connect emotionally."


The cast connect to their characters in similar ways.

"I have never had a similar role to this,’ Ambrosino told EDGE. "It has been very exciting discovering Gabey."

"My role in On The Town suits me perfectly," DeLuca said. "As I mentioned before, Hildy is a strong, independent woman but is also very girly when she wants to be. That is pretty much me to a tee. I love her. I love how proactive and determined she is about the things she wants, but also how soft she can be when she falls in love."

"Ozzie is a fun character," Eisenstat noted. "A sailor with 24 hours to enjoy before heading into war. He wants to have fun and get a date. It wasn’t hard to understand his motivation and relating to it.

"That said, it has been more challenging and enjoyable to find the more nuanced parts of his character and his relationship with Claire and his fellow sailors," the actor went on to say. "The role itself is terrifically different than my last few roles. First, I have to sing and dance. Also, my last few roles have been a 16-year-old orthodox Jew in ’The Chosen,’ and a prisoner in Australia in the late 1700s in ’Our Country’s Good.’ The differences in these characters help keep working on the shows all the more engaging and enjoyable."

"Ivy is me 60 years ago," Gemelli declared. "Living in New York City, pounding the pavement to move onwards and upwards. She’s an optimist and a hard-worker. She works on Coney Island so she can afford to take singing and dancing lessons at Carnegie Hall, and pay her rent. Thankfully, my job in New York is not as a hooch dancer on Coney Island, but I understand her life in New York.

"Recently, I haven’t played anyone like Ivy," Gemelli continued. "But, the ’Miss Turnstiles’ part of my character the fantasy of what Gabey sees in the poster on the subway is very much like a role I understudied on the national tour of ’The Drowsy Chaperone,’ Janet van de Graff. Multi-talented, beautiful starlet."

"I am a type A personality so I can definitely relate to Clair," Doherty confessed. "Claire is significantly more dry and take-charge than the ’good girls’ I usually play. But I do think she and Sheila from A Chorus Line, which I got a chance to do at Reagle last summer, are similar characters."


"On the Town" plays May 10 - June 8 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. For more information, please visit www.lyricstage.com

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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