They said the public would turn on Bill Clinton if he was lying. They said HMOs would improve health care. They said there would be no more Alien movies. Who the hell are they? The House Judiciary Committee? The Church of Scientology? The Backstreet Boys? Who knows? But whoever they are, they've been out in force on Broadway this month. They've been giving bad buzz to the Public Theater's revival of the 1944 musical On the Town and the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Little Me, starring Martin Short. Well, they were wrong, and both shows are, to varying degrees, pleasant, at times artful, funny surprises just in time for the holidays.
It is no surprise at all, however, that they (tobacco executives, maybe?) dismissed On the Town after the revival's first incarnation two summers ago in Central Park. The New York Times called the cast ''jarringly unbalanced,'' and purists were offended that director George C. Wolfe had veered from Jerome Robbins' original balletic choreography. All I recall of the summer production is that it was strangely lacking in sex appeal, considering that On the Town is, after all, a show about three sailors on leave in New York City trying to get Lewinskied.
But Wolfe went to work on the show, replacing the choreographer and tinkering with the cast. The new new choreography, credited to Keith Young, is still something of a mess, but no matter; most of us would sleep through a ''dream ballet'' no matter who did it. What's thrilling about this revival, aside from a helluva score by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, is the reconfigured ensemble. Mary Testa, as a dipsy vocal coach, is absolutely fabulous. Perry Laylon Ojeda, as the clean-cut sailor on a hunt for Miss Turnstiles (Tai Jimenez), gives the show a thoroughly modern soul with his clear, swingy solos and rounds out a combustible trio of talent with his fellow sailors (swarthy Robert Montano and corn-fed Jesse Tyler Ferguson). And a star is born with Lea DeLaria's turn as the brassy taxi driver who talks like a sailor and is hell-bent on getting one in her bed. Already established as an openly lesbian stand-up comic, DeLaria gives a revelatory musical-comedy performance, possessing unexpectedly fleet feet, perfectly brash timing, and the vocal magnitude of Ethel Merman. I think I'm in love (tough luck). A-