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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Willows Theatre Revive
My Sister Eileen
Without The Music

I gave the Willows Theatre group great courage to present this 1940 Fields and Chodorov comedy based on Ruth McKenney’s New Yorker stories. This is a comedy that probably would interest theater history buffs; it was also interesting to note how many forms this play has taken over the years.

On December 14, 1940 the play opened on Broadway at the Biltmore without an out of town tryout. It was directed by the great George S. Kaufman and starred Shirley Booth as Ruth and Jo Ann Sayers as Eileen. Morris Carnovsky played the landlord. The play ran for 866 performances and it had a successful tour. I saw the play with Shirley Booth when it came to Columbus, Ohio and it was a great hit with the buckeyes since the leading characters came from Columbus. Shirley Booth was amazing as Ruth; it was the first time I had seen this talented actress.

Columbia made it into a successful film with Rosalind Russell in the leading role of Ruth; Janet Blair played Eileen. It had a great supporting cast of George Tobias and Brian Ahern, even the Three Stooges appeared in the last scene of the film as subway workers. Columbia, who had a great box office success with the film, decided to make it into a musical in 1955. The songs were by Jule Styne and this time Betty Garrett played Ruth and Janet Leigh was the pert Eileen. It also had a great cast including a very young Bob Fosse as the drug store clerk, Jack Lemmon as the editor, Tommy Rall as the reporter and Kurt Kaszar as the landlord.

Not to be outdone, Broadway got into the act with a musical by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Comden and Green and called it Wonderful Townwith the original Ruth, Rosalind Russell, in the titled role. It opened at the Winter Garden in 1958 and ran for 559 performances. Edie Adams was Eileen. George Gaynes played the editor in this production. I saw the production at the Winter Garden and I loved Ms. Russell’s performance. "Why O Why O Why Did I Even Leave Ohio?" became my favorite song. Also, the great song in the second act when they are sitting around the dinning room table trying to make small talk became an instant favorite.

I had a chance to catch the London revival several seasons ago with Maureen Lipman but, somehow, it had lost its sparkle in the British production. They just did not have that New York timing.

Now, it leads me to the Willows production. I might be jaded when I say I was a little disappointed with this staging. Maybe, God knows, I know this play by heart and it has become one of my most favorite musicals of all times; I guess I kept wanting to hear those Bernstein melodies while I was watching this production.

I think most theater persons knows the story. Two sisters from Columubs, Ohio come to New York for fame and fortune. Ruth was an hopeful writer and Eileen wanted to be a great actress on the stage. They rented an apartment in Greenwich Village for $45 per month. (That was a lot of money in those days.) The apartment was seedy and the landlord was a big sleaze. They found out after renting the place that a subway was being built under the apartment. This became an ongoing joke with explosions coming from underneath shaking the apartment through the comedy.

The building was full of eccentric types like Wreck, a football hero between pro football jobs, his live-in girl friend with a squeaky voice like Betty Boop, and a lady of the night who was very brassy and, of course, the landlord. There were other characters who came in and out of the comedy including a horny reporter, a shy drug store ass’t manager, an editor, some drunks, and persons looking for the lady of the night, Violet. Even the Brazilian navy got into the act.

My main concern with this play was that it was outdated. In 1940 it was the funniest play of the year. It had a sunny optimism that was current with the times. The humor was often wacky. Now I guess you would say it is corny. Times have changed. The play needed better split-timing to make it work. The timing was off when we saw the matinee. It was a play for the 40’s and it shows its age.

The actors did their best trying to make the play work. Jeanne Tinker, a New York based actress, played Ruth. On the whole she has done some brilliant work with this company but here she was miscast. She seems to throw away the clever lines that one associates with Ruth. I also thought Cynthia Bassham could have been more pert in the role of Eileen. She has a great background and one interesting fact about her is that she originated the role of "C" in Albee’s Three Tall Women in Vienna’s English Theatre.

There was one young actor who I have seen several times before at the Pride Company, Aaron Brace played Robert Baker the associated editor. Once again, he proved he is a fine and talented actor and handles the role well. Bob Greene, an excellent Bay actor, went a little over the top as Mr Appopolous the sleazy landlord. He played it like he was in a vaudeville turn. The Brazilian navy scene was not bad, these were young actors and they did their best trying to make the Conga lively. They succeeded. I really felt sorry for all the actors since they were getting no feed back from the audience. There was hardly any laughter coming from this matinee crowd. That makes for bad vibes to those on stage. The production ran until June 3, 2000.

After I saw the production, I ran my tape of the 1958 television adaptation of the musical with Rosalind Russell. I guess my problem with the play is that I am spoiled when I don’t hear the Bernstein music in the straight version of the play. Willows opens with the musical 1776 next week and I am sure they will do a great job with that production.

Cheers!


- Richard Connema



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