THE audience walks down aisles transformed into the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, and a subway kiosk in front of Radio City Music Hall at the innovative new version of ``On the Town,'' which opened yesterday at Arena Stage. What they're seeing is a theatrical first - a theater-in-the-round production of the World War II musical that's considered a classic because of the bombshell of young talent that burst on Broadway.
When ``On the Town'' opened in 1944, it was the first Broadway musical for such enduring talents as Leonard Bernstein, who composed its symphonic score; the husband and wife team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the book and (with Bernstein) the lyrics; for director/choreographer Jerome Robbins; and for set designer Oliver Smith. ``On the Town'' was inspired by Robbins's ballet ``Fancy Free.''
But this patriotic musical about three sailors on shore leave in New York was originally staged for a proscenium-arch theater. For director Douglas Wager, altering the production for theater-in-the-round has been like putting a large rectangular package inside a smaller, round hatbox.
Mr. Wager says that, when you read the play, as written for the traditional staging, ``of course, it works perfectly. It's like a well-oiled machine. Then you have to say, `If I'm putting it in the Arena, I take this well-oiled machine completely apart and put it back together again.' ... The whole play has to be revisualized.''
At a rehearsal shortly before opening night, Wager stood in the center of the theater in his green baseball cap, red plaid shirt, dark pants, and running shoes and cheered the actors on like a football coach:
``Before we go on, for the next few days get the feeling we're riding a fast-cresting wave, coming into the beach. It's exciting!''
Then the set's neon lights flashed on, and the cast came onto the set for what Wager called ``a quick fix at the top of the `Lonely Town' chorale.''
Since the orchestra for this production is stashed under the stage, only musical director William Huckaby's head and baton could be seen above the floor level as he reminded the performers, ``When you sing, `The world's a lonely place, and every town's a lonely town,' don't hold on to the `ly.' It's a LONE-ly town.''
They did it his way, and the song was more poignant.
Then it was on to the Coney Island scene, in which the Manhattan street signs (``Join the Navy/ Man the Guns,'' ``Buy More Bonds'') were eclipsed. On blinked the signs for the Tunnel o' Luv, the Cyclone, the Fun House, and Raja Bimmy's Night in the Harem, as the dancers grabbed their tickets to ride.
Choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge put the dancers through their paces in a Charleston, telling them, ``1-2-3 - GO! You've got to go on your left foot.''
Several bars later, she told them to point up to the neon signs and added, ``I really need mouth on that,'' widening her mouth in a big O of surprise. ``I'm not getting enough mouths!'' One dancer quipped, ``It's silent-movie acting, right?''
During the runthrough, Doug Wager had been making notes on how to improve the show, and then he went over them in a friendly, low-key way with the cast. ``When you guys exit, can you keep your subway arm up?'' he asked one group. ``Your pit singing was a little too loud. For the pit side, you should face north,'' he told another. ``Make that cross right after `Army.' ... Each scene has little reverses in it.''
In an interview, Wager explained, ``If there's a cross from stage left to stage right, ... I have four [angles to think of] in the round. I don't have just left to right.''
He also explained that, working in a traditional theater, ``scene changes are essentially masked'' by the curtains. ``In the Arena, there's no masking. You see every change happen; so the movement from one scene to the next is more kinetic.''
The Arena production retains the original score and book without alteration, says Wager, and re-creates the show ``as if it were written for this new visual form that we're using.'' He says the audience reaction should be, ``I don't understand how they could do this in proscenium; it looks as if it should only be done in the round.''
He hopes ``people will feel this is an exciting improvement, makes the piece seem fresh and immediate and contemporary.''
`ON THE TOWN'' is, after all, a vintage musical, designed to stir undiluted patriotism in its audience. When the musical opened on Broadway just after Christmas in 1944, New York Times critic Lewis Nichols crowned it a hit. ``There can be no mistake about it,'' he wrote. ```On the Town' is the freshest and most engaging musical show to come this way since the golden day of `Oklahoma!' Everything about it is right.''
It has proved right to many audiences over the decades, beginning with people who saw the 1949 Stanley Donen movie that starred Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin as the three sailors on 24-hour leave from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Arena's sailors are Gordon Paddison, John Scherer, and Paul Binotto. While the stage play has rarely been revived (once Off Broaday, once in London), the wonderful music has lingered on: ``New York, New York,'' ``Lonely Town,'' ``Lucky to Be Me,'' and others.
Wager is a top Arena director, who earlier did a brilliant musical version of Robert Penn Warren's novel ``All the King's Men'' and a hilarious stage adaptation of the Marx Brothers movie ``Coconuts.''
He first talked to the Arena Stage's producing director, Zelda Fichandler, about both ``Wonderful Town'' and ``On the Town,'' because ``we were looking for something of an American event to culminate the season.''
The legendary George Abbott directed the original production. ``The show really was fueled to keep spirits high and give people a show in which they could recognize their own sense of patriotism in an implicit, rather than explicit, way,'' says Wager.
``It is not a show about waving the flag. ... They just said, `This is who we are; this is what we stand for - isn't life a wonderful thing? And it's worth fighting for.'''