Also see Scott's review of Camelot
To kick off their 2007-2008 Mainstage Series for musical theater, the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM) staged the throwback show Wonderful Town. This old-fashioned musical comedy provides ample opportunities to showcase many of the talented CCM students, who (as usual) are up to the task in providing an entertaining production.
Wonderful Town premiered on Broadway in 1953 and follows two sisters who travel from Ohio to New York City in 1953 to find fame and fortune. Nose-to-the-grindstone Ruth seeks to make it in the literary world, while the beautiful Eileen hopes for stardom on the stage. The pair find themselves living among a colorful group of neighbors along Christopher Street as they begin their big city adventures.
The book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov (who wrote "My Sister Eileen," the play on which the musical is based) is thin and corny, especially by modern standards. For a romantic comedy, there isn't a lot of romance, and the comedy is quite subdued. No one other than the leading characters are presented as more than one-dimensional characters. Still, it's a fun and entertaining show, if not one that will force an audience to think much.
Thankfully, the show boasts a much stronger score, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Mr. Bernstein's work shows many shades of classical music with unique and interesting chords, and the lyrics by Comden and Green demonstrate their usual fun and descriptive language. "Swing" and "The Wrong Note Rag" contain bouncy and jaunty melodies, and the well-known "Ohio," wherein the sisters question the wisdom of moving to New York, is an amiable combination of these masters' talents. Other musical highlights are "My Darlin' Eileen" with its smart lyrics and wonderful harmonies, and the contemplative "A Quiet Girl."
As Ruth, Natalie Reder displays the tough-as-nails determination and sarcasm needed for the role, though a bit more softness would make her portrayal more well-rounded. Vocally, Ms. Reder is near perfection, and she knocks "One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose A Man" out of the park. Kaitlyn Davidson is extremely endearing as the naïve younger sister Eileen, and she sings with grace and skill (highlighted in "A Little Bit In Love"). Patrick Martin comes across as the most "Broadway ready" of the cast, appearing very sure footed and at ease on stage at all times. Some among the supporting cast need to make sure they enunciate properly, but in general, the entire ensemble perform with good timing and strong execution of the many dances within the show.
Regular CCM Choreographer Diane Lala steps into the role of director for this production, with mixed results. The show moves along nicely with an appropriate pace and smooth transitions. But while the stylized mannerisms that the actors employ do emphasize the intended eccentricities of their characters, little appears to have been done to bring a sense of realism to the material, which would benefit the piece. Choreographer Patti James incorporates numerous dance styles to good effect, with the movement during "Swing" and the "Ballet at the Village Vortex" the dance highlights of this mounting. Roger Grodsky has fun leading a glorious sounding 31-piece orchestra.
Designer Brian Ruggaber provides a set accented with lots of angles and an interesting color palette, though the staircase that is often center stage seems wobbly at times. The attractive costumes are supplied by Reba Senske and the lighting from Jakyung Seo is professionally rendered.
While Wonderful Town won't stand as one of those CCM shows that will be talked about for years to come, it's a solid production and showcases the talented student performers well. One only wishes that the school would choose shows that more distinctly challenged their future professionals with meatier roles and modern sensibilities. The musical played at CCM from November 15 - 18, 2007.