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Bernstein by the Bay: S.F. Symphony brilliantly delivers 'On the Town'

You could make a Broadway show about the making of the musical “On the Town.” It’s got everything. Then again, no one would believe it.

In 1944, a 26-year-old composer and a couple of theater-world pals living in a Greenwich Village garret put together a ridiculously ambitious project about the madcap adventures of three sailors with a 24-hour leave in New York City. Bursting with youthful enthusiasm, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green threw in slapstick, sappy classical music jokes (a blowsy, oversexed cab driver named Brunhilde Esterhazy, or Hildy for short), great tunes, sophisticated lyrics and dance numbers containing a dazzling display of 20th century orchestral and compositional technique.

Disarmingly poignant, startlingly philosophical and ultimately revolutionary, “On the Town” gets away with murder. The original production ran a more-than-respectable year on Broadway. The show was turned into a hit film starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. “On the Town” gave us “New York, New York” and Bernstein’s symphonic arrangement of “Three Dance Episodes,” long a staple of orchestra and pops programs.

For his Memorial Day weekend program with the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted a semi-staged performance of the show at Davies Symphony Hall. There was nothing that hadn’t been heard or seen before. Tilson Thomas famously did something similar with the London Symphony Orchestra and opera singers in 1992 and again four years later in San Francisco shortly after becoming music director here.

Still, Sunday afternoon, “On the Town” had the character of a revelation. For what had to be the first time, every element, classical and pop, proved authentic. There was no need for compromise.

One thing didn’t work. Upstairs ticket holders complained that the front stage couldn't be seen from the balcony. Also unacceptable: This indispensable “On the Town” was not recorded. There is only one thing to do. Bring it back for the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth in 2018.

The problems are fairly obvious. Classically trained singers are typically too grand. Broadway scores (Sondheim included) are ill-suited for symphonic bloat. Amplification in the concert hall is rarely well achieved (not that it’s so hot on Broadway these days). The concert format is just too stiff.

The benefits are that great voices, a great orchestra and a great conductor can bring musical insights to a great score that is hardly possible on a Broadway stage. Plus, concert performances can help keep classic but rarely revived works alive.

But apples remain apples, and oranges, oranges.

Tilson Thomas has solved everything. First off, Broadway Bernstein is unique. “On the Town” was his first show. A year earlier, he made front-page news with his Carnegie Hall debut conducting the New York Philharmonic. In short succession before the “On the Town” opening, he premiered his first symphony (“Jeremiah”), which won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award for the best American work of 1944, and he created his first ballet, “Fancy Free.”

In fact, looking back, we can now see all three works as part of the same impulse. The theme of “On the Town” is “Even a lifetime isn’t enough,” from the poignantly personal late-show song, “Some Other Time.” But packed into the romantic urbane farce of “On the Town” are the spirituality of “Jeremiah” and the dance and blues of “Fancy Free.” Taken together, “On the Town” is the extraordinary preview of the greatest career in American music.

It has always seemed impossible, even for Bernstein, for it all be to be taken together, as Tilson Thomas’ latest “On the Town” finally does. His inspiration was in inviting the leads from the excellent cast of singers and dancers in the 2014 revival that ran on Broadway. Joshua Bergasse’s choreography was remounted on a platform behind the orchestra and also on a space carved out in front.

The performers — beginning with Clyde Alves, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Tony Yazbeck as the three sailors — proved spectacular. Alysha Umphress repeated her hilarious Hildy. Ballerina and Broadway singer Megan Fairchild, as Ivy the subway poster girl, is God’s gift to Bernstein’s multitalent ethos.

Three singers were corralled from opera, and they too amazed. Isabel Leonard (Clair, the racy anthropologist) demonstrated she can dance, act, wise-crack and sing Broadway with the best of them. Peabody Southwell not only was a riot slumming as over-the-top night club singers, but also designed the show’s stylishly witty costumes. Sheri Greenawald couldn’t be beat as the sloshed old singing teacher, Madam Dilly.

James Darrah staged with everything with a restrained flair and made excellent use of the stage and surrounding chorus seats. Adam Larsen set the New York scenes with projections offering atmosphere without distraction. Narrators Amanda Green and David Garrison added dramatic context and humor. Amplification was bold but without distortion. It all worked.

What worked most of all was Tilson Thomas’ conducting. This is what you could never get on Broadway. He found the richest implications in Bernstein’s orchestral writing, whether jazz or neo-Prokofiev. Who knew that there were even Mahlerian echoes in a score written long before Bernstein had ever conducted Mahler?   

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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