Wonderful Town

Review by Adam Blair

Book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov
Music by Leonard Bernstein; Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Based upon the play My Sister Eileen by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, and the stories by Ruth McKenney
Musical direction and vocal arrangements by Rob Fisher
Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall
Starring Donna Murphy, with Jennifer Westfeldt, David Margulies, Michael McGrath, Raymond Jaramillo McLeod, Peter Benson, and Gregg Edelman
At the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, New York City

I really wanted to like the revival of Wonderful Town, and not only because I'd just laid down $96 for a ticket. This was a love-at-first-listen show for me, a show of revelations: Rosalind Russell could sing, if not with a tremendous range; George Gaynes, who I knew only from Tootsie and the Police Academy films, had a lovely rich baritone voice; and Leonard Bernstein could write music in a lighter, bouncier, admittedly more commercial vein than his justly celebrated scores for West Side Story and Candide.

I also wanted to like the show because Wonderful Town's story, corny as it is, is in many ways the quintessential New York story, and New York still needs all the celebrating it can get. For those who don't know, Town is about the Sherwood sisters, Ruth and Eileen, each naïve in her own way to the ways of the big city. They come to Gotham from the sticks of Ohio and find love, friends, fun and jobs - all in the middle of the Depression and in record time, but never mind, this is a musical we're talking about here - you want "reality," watch TV.

Unfortunately, while this revival of Wonderful Town, originally presented as part of the Encores! series, has all the ingredients for an exhilarating celebration, it only hits the heights in a few numbers. Uneven direction from Kathleen Marshall (who also choreographed) and some less-than-inspired casting conspire to make this Town more Atlanta than New York: big and loud and busy, but not the real thing.

Town works best when its star, Donna Murphy, as the smart, no-nonsense Ruth, and Jennifer Westfeldt as her dizzy blonde sister Eileen, take center stage. It's no surprise Murphy, who won deserved raves and Tonys for her work in Passion and The King and I revival, gives a skillful, at times inspired, performance. But Westfeldt is the real surprise, and a delight, as a genuinely nice girl who's also a knockout. It actually seems to make sense that she bedazzles every man she meets: she plays the character's amiable sweetness with just the right dose of selfishness as a balance.

Murphy, while terrific in the comic numbers originally created for Russell (with Bernstein's melodies more than matched by clever Betty Comden-Adolph Green lyrics), sometimes seems to be trying too hard to be the wisecracking dame that Russell played in so many films. She always seems to be delivering her lines out of the corner of her mouth, reminding me more of Carol Burnett doing one of her delicious movie parodies than of an actress believing in her character. It's as if Murphy, best known for dramatic, even somber characters, has turned her "comic" dial all the way up to 11. This works great for the numbers where she can ride the music, such as "Conga," and "Swing," but in the book scenes she seems disconnected from everyone else on stage.

Another, more structural issue is that Wonderful Town was constructed for the limited voice of Russell, giving the ballads and belting to other characters, and it seems unbalanced now with Murphy keeping her big voice under wraps.

Murphy also doesn't have a strong male lead to play against: Gregg Edelman, as a magazine editor whose sparring with Ruth masks his growing attraction, is charming but lacks the big voice his numbers demand. Some of this is the book's fault, which doesn't really give the two characters a traditional "love" scene; everything that develops in their relationship either happens off stage or with other characters.

It also doesn't help that Marshall's direction only springs to life in a few numbers, especially Ruth's mentioned above and during "My Darling Eileen," with a half-dozen stereotypically stage-Irish cops serenading, prancing and riverdancing around the delighted Westfeldt. In other scenes, Marshall's choreography left me wondering where to look rather than focusing and building towards a climax. She's hindered by the set (by John Lee Beatty), which has to accommodate the onstage orchestra led by music director and vocal arranger Rob Fisher (a remnant of Encores!' concert staging). All the action is pushed downstage and stretched across it, so much of the staging consists of people crossing right and left. Without being able to use the full stage depth, Marshall's choreography - heavy on pantomime that spells out the lyrics - scatters attention rather than building a coherent stage picture.

So come to Town at your own risk: Murphy, Westfeldt and some of the supporting actors (notably Raymond Jaramillo McLeod as a dopey but devoted football player) are fun, and the Bernstein-Comden-Green score is as great as it ever was, but Town deserves a better production. However, seeing as this is the first major revival in some 50 years, you may not want to wait for another.

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