Though created in the 1940s, the role Francesca Cipponeri plays in South Bay Musical Theatre’s On the Town could have been written with her in mind. As the fictional dancer Ivy Smith, Cipponeri draws on her own experience living and dancing in New York City.
“This is a whole new challenge for me,” says the actress (pictured above, fourth from left). “To be a lead in this dance role is such an honor.”
Set in 1943 against the backdrop of World War II, On the Town follows three sailors through a hilariously eventful 24-hour shore leave in the Big Apple. With music by legendary composer Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by the writing duo Comden and Green, the production is as witty as it is exuberant. Instantly recognizable numbers like “New York, New York”—rendered iconic when Frank Sinatra sang it in the 1949 film adaptation—are sure to fill the theater with irresistible energy.
“This show has all these crazy comedic moments and sweet moments,” Cipponeri says. “We have a giant dinosaur. [It’s] just incredibly fun to learn, let alone actually perform.”
Like New York City itself, the production achieves a surreal magnitude.
“We have over 400 costume pieces!” Cipponeri exclaims.
Unlike the men of the story, On The Town’s three leading women are not in New York to visit: they are city residents, sometimes dancing but often trudging through the challenges of daily urban life. Ivy, in particular, is balancing a lot.
“She sings and dances at Carnegie Hall; she does polo; she’s a homemaker; she plays football; she does poetry; she does all these things,” Cipponeri explains. “She’s this well-rounded ‘American girl,’ but she knows she’s working really hard to be that, it’s not that those things come naturally.”
When presented with the opportunity to give all that up for love, Ivy is in for the predicament of a lifetime—or at least a night (somehow, the two often seem the same in the city that never sleeps).
Ivy’s dilemma is enhanced by her recent status as “Miss Turnstiles,” a fictional competition based on a similar 1940s-era contest called Miss Subways.
“This panel of judges would pick these women off the subway because they were ‘an average girl,’” Cipponeri says. “They had the looks, they had the talents, they had the hobbies.”
But Ivy also has a secret life behind the scenes—one that leads us, ironically, to another stage, in far less glamorous Coney Island.
Having studied both modern dance and the kind of circus-inspired aerial arts that have become popular in present-day Brooklyn—trapeze, silks, aerial yoga, trampolining and the like—Cipponeri was a natural fit for Ivy. As an undergraduate in the SJSU dance program, she studied under Janie Scott, the production’s director and co-choreographer. Her interest in dance led her to an MFA in choreography and performance at Mills College in Oakland, which led her to a thesis rooted in New York’s aerialist scene.
Despite her penchant for levitating upside down on neon silks, in On the Town Cipponeri performs more traditional ballet aesthetics, with some 1940s-era influence. (In fact, the musical originated with a 1944 ballet by Jerome Robbins called Fancy Free.)
Still, Cipponeri’s diverse training has informed her role in surprising ways, not the least of which are the show’s many lifts.
“My education as a modern dancer influences the way I move my body [in] musical theater,” she remarks. “In the same regard, being an actor and singer and dancer in musical theater has allowed me to sink into whatever the atmosphere is in modern dance.”
These two worlds of movement—one typically considered “light” and one that leans more “serious”—become deeply intertwined in Cipponeri’s approach to her character.
Why is Ivy a dancer above all else? It is a question Cipponeri has been pondering with the show’s dramaturg and cast.
“Dance can be anything it needs to be,” she says. “It’s honest. Whatever it’s telling, it’s honest.”
When it comes to finding yourself in one night of 400 costumes, honesty is key. For her part, Cipponeri has found herself in Ivy.
“[My roles] kind of feel like little personalities I get to hang up in my closet,” she says. “They never really leave you.”
On The Town
Through June 4, Various Times, $24+
Saratoga Civic Theatre, Saratoga