For most New Yorkers, Fleet Week means the opportunity to tour naval ships, take photos and maybe even canoodle with starch-white-uniformed members of the US Navy, Coast Guard and Marines—but for actress Alysha Umphress, it's just another week at the office. Umphress has been entertaining off-duty sailors as raunchy cab driver Hildy in the Tony-nominated Broadway revival of On the Town since the production opened last October. The 1944 musical by Adolph Green, Betty Comden and Leonard Bernstein is about three sailors who leap and lust their way through a 24-hour leave in New York City. As hundreds more sailors dock in NYC this month, Umphress—a cast standout for her brassy comedic style and bring-down-the-house voice—chatted with us about her hopes for Fleet Week, performing on The Today Show and where she would take a thirsty sailor in the City.
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What has your experience in On the Town been like so far? It's been great. I actually haven't missed a show yet, so I've been there for every single step along the way, and it's still fun to do. It's rare that that happens, but I still love my job. I have people come and see the show who are second- or third-time offenders. They say it's still so fresh—nobody looks tired and over it, which is really nice to hear. We have an amazing company.
On the Town opened last fall. Was it weird watching the rush of shows open in the spring before Tony Award nominations were announced? Yes, especially since we're the only musical that survived the winter, but I think it's good we didn't just open. We've gotten so much attention throughout the rest of the year. The shows that open in April only get the spotlight for 24 hours, and then everybody's talking about the new reviews for the next show. Everything is happening right on top of each other, so in a way I'm glad we opened earlier. [Ed's note: In addition to being nominated for best musical revival, On the Town received three other Tony nods.]
You recently performed a rousing rendition of your On the Town solo, “I Can Cook, Too,” on The Today Show. Was that your first time on the show? Yes, I'd done other morning shows like Good Morning America before, but that was my first time doing The Today Show. I woke up at 4:15am and I think our pick-up time was 5:30. It was super early. It was fun but a little stressful. We were supposed to do a big group number, but it got rained out, so they decided I could do “I Can Cook, Too” inside. It was all very, very quick and fly by the seat of your pants, but ultimately it ended up being great.
Given the plot of On the Town, I have to ask: do you have any fun Sex and the City–style Fleet Week memories? No, I don't think I've ever spoken to a sailor, but it is fun when they're all over the City. I think I'd be more likely to start a conversation with them now that I'm in the show, and I think a lot of them will come see us perform.
Where do you live in New York City, and what are your favorite neighborhood haunts? I live on the Upper West Side. My boyfriend [On the Town's Cody Williams] doesn't drink, so I actually don't go to bars too terribly much on the Upper West Side. If I go to bars it's usually in Midtown, because [we go out postshow], but we have some restaurants on the Upper West Side that we like to go to. I love Irving Farm for coffee and breakfast. Sarabeth's is also delicious for breakfast. Other restaurants we like are The Smith, which is the only place that's open late in our neighborhood, The Meatball Shop, Jacob's Pickles, Celeste and Josie's. Parm just opened a location on the Upper West Side—it's really good.
Is the Upper West Side your favorite neighborhood in New York? I love the Upper West Side, but I really love the West Village. I lived there for three years at Jane Street and Eighth Avenue. It's quiet and charming, with great little restaurants and coffee shops. It's so bougie, I know, but I just love it.
What do you like to do in New York when you aren't working? I love to ride my bike up the West Side Highway. It's super fun on a really gorgeous day. I also love to explore different neighborhoods—go to Brooklyn or the Lower East Side. I also like the free movies in Bryant Park in the summer.
Do you do anything special on your off nights? Right now, since we're heavy into the Tony season, I've been trying to see all the shows that I can on Sunday and Monday nights. Once the summer hits I want to try to get out of town on Mondays, even if it's just a little day trip upstate or to Fire Island. I love Fire Island.