The San Francisco Symphony Brings Bernstein Classic to the Stage

by Jesse Hamlin

The SFS brings Broadways stars to Davies Hall to perform Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 wartime musical “On the Town.”

In 1992, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a semi-staged concert version of “On the Town,” the innovative 1944 wartime musical composed by Leonard Bernstein with choreographer Jerome Robbins and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The star-filled cast mixed Broadway talents like Tyne Daly and opera luminaries such as Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey.

Veteran Broadway and TV actor David Garrison played the girl-crazy sailor Ozzie. Best known for his role as Al Bundy’s neighbor Steve on the sitcom “Married…with Children,” Garrison stood under the Barbican stage during the concert’s “Imaginary Coney Island” ballet interlude, enraptured by the orchestral richness and power of Bernstein’s music.

Tyne Daly

With no dancers onstage to draw your attention, “you focus on the music and hear it in a different way. It’s extraordinary,” says Garrison, who can’t wait to hear that music again when he joins Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus and another sterling cast when they revisit “On the Town” at Davies Symphony Hall this month.

David Garrison

Garrison and Daly will appear in this partially staged show as the narrators—played in the 1992 London performances by Comden and Green, who wrote the narration—and sing in some comic scenes. The cast features stars from the hit 2014 Broadway revival of the musical, including Clyde Alves, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Tony Yazbeck as the young sailors set loose in the Big Apple for 24 hours before shipping out to war, and Alysha Umphress as Hildy the cabbie. “New York Times” critic Ben Brantley called her “a red hot mama” who sings the double-entendres in “Come Up to My Place” with “a prurience-proof bebop gusto.”

Operatic soprano Isabel Leonard appears as the trilling anthropologist Claire de Loone (played by von Stade in ’92) who gets “Carried Away” by the caveman-like Ozzie; bass-baritone Shuler Hensley plays her dull husband, Pitkin.

Alysha Umphress

The basic story for the musical, which among other things was noteworthy at the time for its multi-race cast, came from Robbins’ hit 1944 ballet “Fancy Free,” for which Bernstein wrote the music. The new score Bernstein composed for “On the Town”—which produced such classic songs as the brassy “New York, New York,” the wistful ballad “Some Other Time” and the joyous “Lucky to Be Me”—covers a wide musical spectrum. You hear some of the jazz and Cuban elements Bernstein drew on in later works like “West Side Story,” shades of Gershwin and Stravinsky, operatic parodies.

“The fact that it grew out of that ballet gives it a heart and soul that’s different than musicals of the time,” says Garrison, whose Broadway credits include “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine,” “Wicked” and “Torch Song Trilogy.”

“It was ahead of the curve. It had a musical structure and a musical sophistication, with symphonic roots, that, with all due respect to Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart, Broadway shows didn’t have before.”

This one has a dizzying, cartoon-like quality, but just under the surface is the sobering awareness that “you have three young testosterone-filled guys who may possibly be going off to their deaths.”

That’s something that John Rando, who directed the 2014 Broadway revival, hammered home with his cast.

“He constantly reminded us that although the show is built around madcap comic moments, these three boys are trying to find something to hold onto before they’re shipped off to war,” says Jay Armstrong Johnson, who plays the sailor Chip, the hayseed portrayed by Frank Sinatra in the 1949 film version, which used only three of the original songs.

“Chip is a real follower, the youngest of the group,” says Johnson, 28, who has a recurring part as an FBI agent on the NBC drama “Quantico.” “It’s his first time in New York and he’s excited about fulfilling the [sightseeing] dreams of his dad. He doesn’t expect to be thrown off by this sexy Hildy.”

Because of limited space on the Davies stage, there won’t be a lot of dancing in this production, but what there is will be choreographed by Paloma Garcia-Lee, who worked with choreographer Joshua Bergasse on the Broadway production.

Johnson doesn’t mind. His favorite moment comes toward the end of the show, when the quartet sings “Some Other Time.”

“I don’t have to dance around and be goofy,” he says. “I get to [just] stand and sing.”

“On the Town”

Davies Symphony Hall

May 25-29

(415) 864-6000