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
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.