Wright State goes ‘On the Town’



Classic musical concerns three sailors on 24-hour shore leave in New York City.

Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s classic 1944 musical comedy “On the Town,” a tuneful tale of energy, humor, optimism and romance at the height of World War II, will be presented by Wright State University March 17-April 8 in the Festival Playhouse of the Creative Arts Center.

Best known for the song “New York, New York,” the feel-good story concerns Gabey, Ozzie and Chip, three lighthearted sailors on 24-hour shore leave in the Big Apple. Open to the possibilities of fun-loving adventure, Gabey becomes smitten with Ivy Smith (a.k.a. Miss Turnstiles), Ozzie gets carried away with anthropologist Claire de Loone, and Chip is seduced by sexually charged Hildy Estherhazy, a cab driver who desperately wants him to come up to her place.

Premiering one year after the groundbreaking “Oklahoma!” reinvented musical theatre with a story about the past, “On the Town” dared to speak to the present with characters grounded in the reality of its era. In many respects the sailors heading off to war on stage mirrored the lives of the sailors that audiences would see outside the theatre.

“‘On the Town’ was a revolutionary musical in it’s time that raised the bar for what a Broadway musical could be in just about every way, while still maintaining an incredible sense of joy, romance and silliness,” said director Joe Deer. “This new production captures all the energy of that moment and brings it vividly to life in ways that burst off the stage. Most of the characters are exactly the age of our students, who have found a joyful connection with the story that’s thrilling to see in rehearsal.”



John Cuozzo, a junior acting major who was memorably mysterious as Mr. Paravicini in WSU’s “The Mousetrap” earlier this season, portrays Ozzie. He finds motivation in the story’s relevant message of living life with hope and positivity.

“These three sailors being let loose in New York City unleashes this wave of unbridled excitement about the world around them, which can feel hard to come by these days,” he said. “The idea of coming into a world where everything seems new, exciting and possible is something I hope audiences connect to, especially as the world comes out of the COVID pandemic. The refreshing thing about doing a show like ‘On the Town’ is that it has a positive, hopeful outlook on life and is absolutely free of cynicism. The story and characters are relatively straightforward, but they are imbued with so much honesty, simplicity and love.”

Senior musical theatre majors Tanner Gleeson and Ben Ohnemus echoed Cuozzo’s sentiments. Gleeson, seen in “Mamma Mia!” and “Bright Star,” and Ohnemus, seen in “Sister Act” and “Sweet Charity,” are hopeful audiences will be moved by the joy within the show.



“There’s something so optimistic about ‘On the Town’ and, to me, that joy is infectious,” said Gleeson, who portrays Gabey. “The world is always in need of joy and I think our show will provide that to anyone (who) sees it.”

“This story resonates because it encourages people to find joy in difficult times,” added Ohnemus, who portrays Chip. “The three sailors acknowledge their situation could seem grim and nerve-racking but instead choose to take advantage of the time they do have to really live it up. This show reminds people that today is the only guarantee, so make sure you live it to its fullest.”

A new transition

“On the Town” will showcase Wright State’s newly merged arts programs into the School of Fine and Performing Arts. Announced in March 2022, the School of Fine and Performing Arts, one of three schools formed from the reorganization of the College of Liberal Arts, was born out of financial and administrative restructuring.

“Former (College of Liberal Arts) Dean Linda Caron said we needed to think about how we would reorganize the College, compress some of what was going on and bring people together in larger but sympathetic units,” explained Deer, artistic director of the School of Fine and Performing Arts. “One of the obvious groupings was to bring everybody in the arts together. The arts programs at Wright State – visual art and art history, music, theatre, dance and motion pictures – have a good reputation and we have worked hard to build it.”

The principal cast includes Trinity Wolff as Hildy, Amy VanDyke as Ivy, Melissa Mataresse as Claire, Sam Evans as Madame Dilly, Aliya Pimental as Lucy Schmeeler and Kevin Lausche as Pitkin W. Bridgework.



The production, notably featuring scenic design by emeritus professor of design Pam Lavarnway, will also incorporate a 19-piece onstage orchestra, led by faculty music director F. Wade Russo. The orchestra will include students and faculty from the School of Fine and Performing Arts as well as local professional musicians.

“The collaboration between the music and theatre programs represents Wright State’s commitment to the artistic and professional development of our students,” said Russo. “It gives student musicians the opportunity to work and perform alongside their professors as well as with local professionals to hone their musical skills outside of the concert experience.”

Reflecting on Bernstein’s score, which includes the lively “I Can Cook Too” and “Ya Got Me” along with tender ballads “Lonely Town” and “Some Other Time,” Russo finds the work immensely flavorful in style and substance.

“The score is remarkable,” he said. “Leonard Bernstein utilizes the jazzy rhythm of Gershwin, the boogie woogie swing style of Glenn Miller and Harry James mixed with the orchestral grandeur of Prokofiev, the contrapuntal precision of Bach, and the lyricism of Jerome Kern to reflect the complicated urgency of life in wartime America. (It’s) not unlike Lin-Manuel Miranda’s use of hip-hop and rap to make the story of ‘Hamilton’ relevant to contemporary audiences.”

Trusting dance to tell the story

New York-based guest choreographer Josh Walden is thrilled to create routines that pay homage to original choreographer Jerome Robbins while ensuring the movement feels refreshing and vibrant.

“If you come to the show and you’re used to Robbins’ choreography, you’re going to see fresh new takes on everything,” said Walden. “There are nods to Robbins, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse – all that classic movie musical and classic Broadway magic. But it’s going to have some different silhouettes and different stories within the big ballets. I want the dance to be continuously connected to what each sailor wants.”



The New Hampshire native, who appeared in the Broadway revivals of “42nd Street,” “A Chorus Line” and “La Cage aux Folles” among others, was the associate director/choreographer for the Tony-nominated Broadway revival of “Ragtime.” Additional credits include choreographing productions at the Kennedy Center, The Muny in St. Louis, Chicago’s Drury Lane Theatre, Sacramento Music Circus and Actors Theatre of Louisville to name only a few.

As a self-described non-binary queer feminist, Walden has enjoyed discovering how “On the Town” can be interpreted today rather than merely accepting the material as a portal to a bygone age.

“It’s fun to go back to these old musicals and see how we can apply what we now know, to look at it, observe it and respect it, but also make sure that while you’re inside it you don’t lose sight of who you are currently,” said Walden. “In ‘On the Town,’ the three sailors and their love interests are all powerful. They all want to make a connection equally. It’s not the sailors dominating. The females have sexual drives, urges and wants and they are not afraid to pursue them. Although it’s a period piece, you can look at it and celebrate the feminism in it.”


What: “On the Town”

Where: Festival Playhouse of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn

When: March 17-April 8; 8 p.m. March 17, 18, 24, 25, April 7 and April 8; 2 p.m. March 19, 25, 26 and April 8; and 7 p.m. April 6

Cost: $15-$25

Tickets: 937-775-2500 or https://liberal-arts.wright.edu/fine-and-performing-arts/box-office-and-current-season

FYI: There are no performances the last week of March due to preparations for Wright State’s annual ArtsGala



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