tue 16/07/2019

Prom 57, On the Town, LSO, Wilson review - symphonic dances and sassy vocals | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 57, On the Town, LSO, Wilson review - symphonic dances and sassy vocals

Prom 57, On the Town, LSO, Wilson review - symphonic dances and sassy vocals

Bernstein's most flawless stage work zips past in expert hands

Nathaniel Hackmann, Fra Fee, Louise Dearman, Celina Schoenmaker and Nadim Naaman salute Bernstein with John Wilson and the LSO on the 100th anniversary dayAll images by Mark Allan/BBC

1944 was one hell of a year for Bernstein the composer, with a perfect ballet and a near-perfect musical sharing a general theme of three sailors loose in New York, but nothing else, in their boisterous originality. Perhaps their only equal among Bernstein's works - more contestably – is MASS of 1971, surely his biggest and most resonant score, but hardly a candidate for comparable classicism. What John Wilson applied last night to make On the Town work as unremittingly well as the much shorter ballet, Fancy Free, was precisely that classical focus, high on energy and cutting no slack. Never, surely, has the score been better played.

The London Symphony Orchestra, which performed an even fuller but not so taut and sometimes deliciously, occasionally distractingly starry concert version of the musical under Michael Tilson Thomas in 1992, was the real hub of the evening, transformed for all that one could hear into Wilson’s own band for the night. Vocal quality across the board provided the obvious hits – a whole stream of them, even a cheesy couple transformed by the wit of Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s lyrics – but the deep heart was in the dance sequences, amounting to nearly half the music It starts as pure Prokofiev pastiche for the Miss Turnstiles sequence but evolves into Bernstein's voice at its personal and sometimes even profound best..By paradoxically removing all but the slightest element of choreography that helped make the original a total work of art (high, popular, who in this case wants to label, especially when Jerome Robbins is your dance-master?), this streamlined performance made us listen to the purely orchestral music as a symphony, the 24-hour misadventures and inner life of Gabey the sailor (Wilson pictured below). John Wilson in Prom 57Gabey also gets the soul in the song; Nathaniel Hackmann delivered “Lonely Town” with the right amount of Howard Keelesque warmth. Despite the monstrous Albert Hall miking which won’t have affected viewers on BBC Four, his companions, Nadim Naaman’s Ozzie and Fra Fee’s Chip, put across the patter and the sass. There was perfect vocal contrast between their two ladies, who wear the trousers in more ways than one and tend to get more of the limelight: operatic Celinde Schoenmaker as the sexed-up anthropologist Claire de Loone and show-stopper Louise Dearman’s taxi-driver Brunnhilde (Hildy) Esterhazy (though the raucous cab seduction number, “Come Up to My Place,” was visually masked from where I was sitting by the high-level cameraman in the Arena).

Poise from Siena Kelly’s Ivy Smith, Barnaby Rea taking on several roles including Claire’s not quite funny fiancee Judge Pitkin and finding an energy shared by Kerry Shale's narration, and Claire Moore bringing a discipline to the lush-ness of singing teacher Madame Dilly completed the main cast. Other solos were brilliantly taken by students from ArtsEd, stepping deftly out from the prompt sitting-and-standing young chorus: all good, especially the first night-club singer (uncredited in the programme; you may have heard her name on radio or tv). Martin Duncan’s clever and nimble demi-staging managed them well. Students from ArtsEdDistinctive voices within the LSO included Liz Burley as jazz pianist, Philip Cobb taking to the sassy trumpet style as surely as Maurice Murphy once did, and saxophonist Howard McGill. The sax has to inscape the deepest moment of melancholy in the 11th hour (or 21st of the 24 the sailors have on shore leave) “Subway Ride” – is Bernstein putting his own darker side out there at this point? - transformed in the verses of the bittersweet quartet of close-to-parting “Some Other Time” (was an octave drop ever used more effectively than in the “oh well”s?)

It all added up to a zinging tribute on the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, though Wilson was the victim of his own success in making it all flash by so fast, leaving us wanting more. With happy memories of Jude Kelly's ENO production, I'd still like to see it all on stage again, but as a one-off with its own interesting boundaries, this suited the big day very well.

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