The posters for “On the Town” partially give the show away. Three chipper-looking sailors pose with wide eyes beneath the words, “New York, New York, it’s a helluva town”. The image and quote – an opening line from the show’s first big number – convey the excitement of docking in New York City. But ten minutes into the performance, a more specific plot emerges: the reason for the sailors’ enthusiasm is that they have 24 hours to get laid. They are literally up all night to get lucky, to paraphrase a more recent lyric.
The central character is the earnest Gabey (Tony Yazbeck) who, soon after arriving, notices a poster of Miss Turnstiles, the NYC subway’s version of a beauty pageant queen, and is immediately drawn to her. With all of the single girls in the city for Gabey to hit on (and what woman would turn down a sailor) it’s a bit implausible that he’d devote his one day in town to finding someone he's never met. His fellow sailors Ozzie and Chip are less exacting in their pickup criteria: anyone with breasts will do. Lucky for them, the ladies they meet are quicker to hop into bed than they are, and the chemistry is good enough to merit a post-coitus evening out. Gabey eventually finds Miss Turnstiles, a girl named Ivy Smith, played by New York City Ballet principal Megan Fairchild. The attraction is mutual, but her demeaning job delays her from a date until Gabey’s final hour in the city. Alas for the sentimental heartthrob of the show, delayed sexual pleasure (or unattained as it turns out) is the price of finding requited love. Yazbeck plays Gabey as being utterly smitten with Ivy, though the quickness of his emotions made me wonder if he “falls in love” at every port where his ship docks.
Leonard Bernstein’s score is upbeat and playful, especially paired with Adolph Green and Betty Comden’s lyrics, though not as complex or nuanced as “West Side Story” and “Candide”. Director John Rando seizes every opportunity for sexual humor (like one sailor holding a bag of groceries on his lap with a tall breadstick popping up in just the right spot). But the show’s prurience manages to be wholesome and inoffensive. That’s mainly due to the sexual confidence of the women and the romantic tilt of their encounters. Every ogle is well-received, every kiss consensual.
“On the Town” may be the most perfectly touristy musical on Broadway right now. It’s a feel-good show for starters – great numbers, solid performances, and an easy to package narrative – but on another level, it’s a musical that is essentially about tourists experiencing a day and night in New York. To explore the sights with them is to feel the limitless possibilities of the city. As they board the ship at the end of their stay, a new slew of sailors arrive, ready to take the town for a day. The show is lightweight, but the finale resonates. You depart the theater at 42nd street wanting to capture the city as well, even if you've lived here for years.
photo credit: Joan Marcus