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Sex and art

Leonard Bernstein's 'On The Town'
at the London Coliseum,
reviewed by DAVID WILKINS


There has been a certain amount of the usual precious hand-wringing about Broadway musicals appearing on a dedicated operatic stage. I don't understand it -- and never will. 'Never mind the genre -- feel the genius' is enough for me and, getting it so near-perfectly right, the English National Opera establish what ought to be a precedent for accepting music-theatre at its best as the foundation of its duty. Of course, they shouldn't be doing what could be better done up-the-road but there are works that deserve (they never 'demand') the kind of dedication -- with nothing of the de haut en bas about it -- that a house, a stage, a company and a spirit can lavish, deservedly, on something like Bernstein's On The Town.

Lacking Bishop Berkeley's scepticism, I can say that I have never seen a television programme called Sex and the City but I know that it exists. On The Town is the Bernstein pre-empting version of at least its title. With the joyous -- witty, penetrating, entirely honest -- book and lyrics by Adolph Green and Betty Comden, New York is (inevitably) the city and that other thing is never far from anyone's mind. The film (terrific in its way) made the great error of excluding most of Bernstein's score. The LSO / Michael Tilson Thomas version was a hoot and full of musical treasures. This London Coliseum staging is, undoubtedly, a great night in the theatre -- and if, for some people, it's the wrong theatre then I guess I pity their insularity and hope they will catch-up some other time.

A scene from Bernstein's 'On The Town' at English National Opera. Photo © 2005 Johan Persson
A scene from Bernstein's 'On The Town' at English National Opera. Photo © 2005 Johan Persson

The presence of Sir Willard White in an initial cameo serves to delight sub-editors (A Knight On The Town! maybe ...) but it also gives the piece a certain Porgy & Bess gravitas. There are moments of darkness in this production. The reminders that the three sailors on a day's shore-leave might be facing imminent death in combat; the zany addiction to flirtation leading to comedic consummation or absurd infatuation; even the final replacement of our three heroes with the next trio of emotional and hormonal gullibility tell a tale of what love is and what it means and how it can make (honourable) fools of us all.

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Copyright © 16 March 2005 David Wilkins, Eastbourne UK


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