NEW YORK — Re-electrifying a show in its dying days, ballet sensation Misty Copeland brings considerable charisma and elegant physicality to her Broadway debut as a gamine beauty queen in the 1944 musical “On the Town.”
As you might expect of a theater novice, Copeland’s acting abilities conform to only a narrow range of accomplishment, oscillating between charm and vivacity. And judging from the few bars she’s called on to sing in one number, “Do Do Re Do,” the voice is most assuredly still a work in progress.
But as for the real skill that landed her for a fortnight on the stage of the Lyric Theatre on West 42nd Street, well, on that count we’re in far more scintillating territory. Dancing up a gymnastic storm in the first-act number introducing her as the New York City subway system’s “Miss Turnstiles,” and executing a sultry pas-de-deux in Act 2 with the evening’s romantic lead, Tony Yazbeck, Copeland merges her technique seamlessly with Leonard Bernstein’s stylishly jazzy music. Her radiant appeal is a match for a musical, with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, that’s all about the vitality of a city and the young people who make sure it never sleeps.
This richly melodic if overly manic revival of “On the Town,” directed by John Rando and choreographed, lusciously, by Joshua Bergasse, had its official opening on Broadway in October in the 1,900-seat Lyric — a house that has proven to be far too big for it — and has been struggling to find an audience ever since. (Its producers have been a patient lot.)
Copeland, whose recent promotion to principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre makes her the first African American woman to achieve that distinction, signed on to replace the New York City Ballet’s Megan Fairchild as Ivy Smith, the Miss Turnstiles who is pursued by a sailor on a one-day shore leave with two of his buddies. As it turns out, her participation will be short-lived, as “On the Town” has announced that it will close Sept. 6.
It’s too bad the dancer won’t have time to explore more deeply the matrix of elements that go into inhabiting a character in musical theater. The Lyric audience was more than happy to be in her presence, and you suspect that more ticketbuyers would line up to see her; the occupancy rate in the auditorium Tuesday night was far higher than when I saw the production last fall.
Copeland could put the additional experience to good use, because her portrayal at this point exhibits some of the limitations shared by other ballet stars who have taken to theater stages. In the work of Copeland, like that of Fairchild in “On the Town” and Tiler Peck in the Kennedy Center’s world premiere of “Little Dancer” last year, you tend to get a sustained projection of one emotion, rather than a more textured embodiment of a human. (These dancer-actresses seem to wear sunny stage personas as a kind of self-protection.) This, for all I know, has to do with the rigors of ballet training and an ingraining emphasis on other aspects of performance.
One ballet star who has managed of late to more successfully balance the technical and emotional demands of musical theater is Robert Fairchild, Tiler’s husband and Megan’s brother. In “An American in Paris,” currently at the Palace Theatre, he creates a suave character who moves with athletic grace, but also conveys a winning measure of vulnerability.
Let’s hope Copeland ventures into this new terrain again. An enthusiastic cheering section is primed for it to happen.
Music by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Directed by John Rando. Choreography, Joshua Bergasse; sets and projections, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Jess Goldstein; music direction, James Moore; sound, Kai Harada. With Alysha Umphress, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Clyde Alves and Elizabeth Stanley. Through Sept. 6 at Lyric Theatre, 213 W. 42nd St. Call 877-250-2929 or visit ticketmaster.com.