Certain eras exert an unshakable hold on the American imagination. We can’t seem to get enough of the 1920s, for instance — a fact that was surely not lost on Baz Luhrmann when he decided to film “The Great Gatsby,’’ or on HBO when it picked up “Boardwalk Empire.’’
The 1940s is another such era. In our reductionist cultural shorthand, we think of the ’40s as a more innocent time, at least on the homefront, far from the World War II battlefields where illusions were scarce.
The Lyric Stage Company’s “On the Town’’ reflects that innocence, but its mood is also shadowed by our contemporary mistrust of happy endings. Directed by Spiro Veloudos and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins, this is a production longer on wistful charm than effervescence.
The 1944 Broadway premiere of “On the Town’’ signaled the emergence of a quartet of talented theater artists who would leave indelible marks on the Great White Way: composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who also wrote the book.
It’s in Comden and Green’s dialogue that “On the Town’’ shows its age most glaringly. What may have seemed like naughty or clever repartee seven decades ago now comes across as labored and old-fashioned, less snappy than creaky, with a paucity of genuine wit. Had Comden and Green generated more of a verbal whirlwind, it might conceal the lack of genuine tension or surprise in this musical tale of three sailors looking for romance during a 24-hour shore leave in Manhattan.
The Lyric’s “On the Town’’ comes most fully to life when the dancing does the talking. The show is based on “Fancy Free,’’ a ballet by Robbins, with music by Bernstein. Ilyse Robbins (no relation), has choreographed alluringly dreamlike sequences for this “On the Town’’ that shimmer with the excitement, mystery, and uncertainty of life in the big city, where connections are hard to make and even harder to sustain. (Ilyse Robbins is having a very good spring: She also choreographed and directed the exhilarating production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie’’ that just wrapped up at Stoneham Theatre.)
While Bernstein’s genius would bloom even further with “Candide’’ (1956) and “West Side Story’’ (1957), he crafted a few gems for “On the Town.’’ The most familiar is “New York, New York,’’ a jaunty ode sung by Gabey (John Ambrosino), Chip (Phil Tayler), and Ozzie (Zachary Eisenstat) to a city they are visiting for the first time.
Of all the attractions the sailors are eager to see, it’s the “dames’’ who interest them most. Gabey sets his sights the highest: He decides he has to meet Gotham’s just-crowned Miss Turnstiles, a nightclub dancer named Ivy, played by Lauren Gemelli. Ozzie is drawn into a romance with Claire (Aimee Doherty), a man-hungry anthropologist, while Chip finds himself receiving equally aggressive amorous attention from a cab driver named Hildy (Michele A. DeLuca).
Doherty is the standout here in a role that allows her to showcase not just her vocal chops but also her comic flair. Claire’s libido and general impulsiveness keep undermining her attempts at prim hauteur, a dilemma Doherty entertainingly spells out in “Carried Away,’’ a duet with Eisenstat. Also an asset is J.T. Turner as Claire’s long-suffering — at least until he decides to suffer no longer — fiancé. Turner repeatedly wrings laughs out of two simple words, spoken to Claire, that later form the title and basis of a song: “I Understand.’’
In evoking the period, Veloudos gets substantial aid from the design team, which includes Kathleen Doyle, creator of the ensemble’s snappy costumes, and Janie Howland, whose set features wartime posters that remind us the sailors’ escapades are a brief respite from grim reality. Similarly, Seaghan McKay’s projections capture an ever-shifting cityscape while conveying a sense of the general impermanence of things.
That’s in keeping with a production whose most resonant moment occurs not during one of the upbeat numbers but instead near the end, when Claire, Ozzie, Hildy, and Chip team up for the achingly poignant “Some Other Time.’’
“Where has the time all gone to?/Haven’t done half the things we want to,’’ Claire sings. “Oh well, we’ll catch up/Some other time.’’ The words are hopeful, but the music tells us it’s a promise that won’t be — can’t be — kept.