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Regional Reviews: San Francisco

An Excellent Revival Of Wonderful Town

Also see Richard's review of Cannery Row

The Marin Theatre Company in a co-production with the Allegro Theatre Company is presenting the Tony Award winning Bernstein, Comden and Green 1953 musical Wonderful Town. The musical is based on Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov book and play, My Sister Eileen.

I am a true aficionado of Wonderful Town, having seen six versions of the musical. I think I know every lyric and melody of the harmonious, zippy score. I saw the original production at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1953 with Rosalind Russell and Edie Adams. In the chorus was a young dancer by the name of Joe Layton who went on to fame as a director and choreographer. I saw Nanette Fabray as Ruth in a touring company, Kay McClelland and Crista Moore in the New York City Opera Production in 1994, Lucie Arnaz and Stephanie Zimbalist in the Reprise Concert version in Los Angles in 1997, and a production in the West End starring Maureen Lipman in the '90s. The most recent production was the concert version at New York's City Center in May 2000 with Donna Murphy and Laura Benanti taking over the roles.

Wonderful Town caused quite a buzz when it first premiered on February 25, 1953, and it had a successful run of 559 performances. The show was greeted with a fistful of rave reviews, and Ms. Russell was declared the queen of New York Theater. No one has ever been able to replace her in that role, and the conga number with Roz is one of my all time favorites.

Wonderful Town is about two Ohio girls struggling to make it big in New York in the 1930s. Ruth is a hopeful writer who is plain and serious and just can't seem to land a man. Eileen, on the other hand, is a fledging actress, a beautiful wholesome girl who is a magnet for the opposite sex. They land in a basement apartment in "colorful" Greenwich Village where the girls are visited by men callers looking for the former tenant who was a lady of the evening.

There are many delightful Village characters in this hotbed of bohemian culture, including Wreck, an out of work football player who is "living in sin" with his girlfriend Helen; Appopolous, a painter and shifty landlord; wisecracking reporter Chick Clark; Frank, a mousy nerd who is the assistant manager of a local drugstore; and Valenti, a real hip '30s style owner of a nightclub called the Village Vortex. There is also an ensemble of drunks, cops, and other Bohemian Village types (at least according to those innocent years of the early '50s). Gays were not recognized as village people during those times. Many adventures happen to the girls during the 2 hour 35 minute production.

Leonard Bernstein's score is very effervescent, even though none of the songs have become standards. The composer provides an eclectic mix of melodies, including conga, romantic ballads, swing, bebop and even an Irish ballad. The score has timeless energy. The verbal wit of Comden and Green shines through many of the songs, such as "What a Waste," "Conversation Piece" and "Pass that Football." The lyrics have great vigor. The songs "Ohio" and "A Little Bit in Love" are very nostalgic.

Director Lee Sankowich has assembled a great cast - the small group both sings and dance, and they are first-rate in both departments. Julie James is properly sarcastic in Ruth's rendition of "One Hundred Easy Ways," and she also is terrific in the hep "Swing!". She has a great husky voice for these songs. She effortlessly drops wisecracks throughout the whole production. Virginia Wilcox as Eileen is the direct opposite. She has a crystal clear light soprano voice and presents a very wholesome appearance. She is also a terrific dancer. The actress's duet of "Ohio" is wonderful and they harmonize beautifully, especially on this song.

Mark Farrell almost steals the show with his characterization of the assistant drugstore manager. He is the perfect nerd, and one of the highlights is his part in the song "Conversation Piece." Michael Levesque, a New York actor who has appeared in many Off Broadway plays, comes across well as the big, brainless Wreck. His rendition of the complex song "Pass the Football" is fun. Rob Hatzenbeller as Baker the publisher has a forceful voice for "What a Waste," and his take on "A Quiet Girl" is lovely. John Patrick Moore is properly catlike as Valenti, in a zoot suit that is strictly from the '30s. Veteran actor Will Marchetti as Appopolous has little to do as the landlord, and Pat Parker as Mrs. Wade is uproarious in her small role. Colin Thompson rounds out the major cast as Chick. He is properly sleazy as the reporter "on the make."

Director Sankowich has given this musical a buoyant staging, and choreographer Richard Gibbs has done a marvelous job with the small cast. He opens with a great ten minute dance opening to "Christopher Street" and fills the stage with lively jitterbugging and even a great Irish jig in the second act. All of the dances are well carried out by the versatile ensemble.

The six piece orchestra under the direction of David Lohman does a splendid job on the Bernstein score. The orchestra is onstage on a second tier and the leader makes it sound like a larger orchestra. The set by the late Jamie Greenleaf and completed by Andy Scrimger is a cartoon version of Greenwich Village. Costumes by Laura Hazlett are vibrant and overstated period '30s wear.

Wonderful Town plays through December 8th at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley. For tickets call 415-388-5208 or visit Coming next to the theater will be the professional world premiere of Tennessee Williams' Fugitive Kind, scheduled to open on January 9, 2003.

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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