A Little Bit in Love with Wonderful Town
Fifty-three years after Broadway saw the Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden & Adolph Green Tony award winning musical Wonderful Town, it has arrived at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre as the best musical production of 2006 so ar (and likely to remain so) as well as of several seasons past. An almost entirely Seattle-based cast brings the musicalization of Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov's My Sister Eileen, with a book by the same pair, to vibrant life under Bill Berry's brassy, sassy direction.
Sarah Rudinoff and the Sailors
Though there is a distinct plot - sisters Ruth and Eileen Sherwood arrive in 1935 NYC from Ohio determined to take the town, and after a slew of romantic and comedic misadventures, they do! – the show is really a delicious series of musical and comedic vignettes. Rosalind Russell may have held a patent on the role of Ruth during her Broadway Tony-winning run (later recreated on CBS in 1958), and Donna Murphy enjoyed personal acclaim in the concert format revival recently seen there, but Seattle's Ruth Sherwood, the unbeatable Sarah Rudinoff, totally makes the role her own and if Seattle had an theatre awards, well, the 2006 best actress award would be sewed up here and now. Rudinoff, whose body type is more along the lines of Lea DeLaria or Rosie O'Donnell, makes even the script's saggier jokes and conceits come alive again, hits a homer on her first solo, "One Hundred Easy ways to Lose A Man," and keeps on hitting ‘em throughout, whether holding a giddy group of Cuban sailors at bay in the riotous "Conga" or selling customers on paying admission to a Greenwich village club in the serendipitous "Swing." Beneath all the brashness and bravado, Rudinoff shows us a Ruth who has a seldom-seen tender side in a reprise of the ballad "A Quiet Girl."
While Rudinoff and the show's score alone would justify the ticket price, there is much more to this production. Billie Wildrick hits a Seattle career high, ideally cast in the role of Eileen, Ruth's comely mantrap of a sister. Paired with Rudinoff on two duets, the slyly satirical "Ohio" and the late act two rouser "Wrong Note Rag," Wildrick's lighter, more operatic range blends with Rudinoff's throaty, smokier sounds in a way that is pure musical theatre heaven, and her ballads "A Little Bit in Love" and "It's Love," are winsomely engaging. Timothy McCuen Piggee gives another thrilling vocal performance as Ruth's magazine editor and would-be love interest Robert Baker. His silken way with his solo on "A Quiet Girl" and duet "It's Love," and comedic flair on group numbers "What A Waste" and "Conversation Piece" make it clear once again why Seattle audiences adore him, even in a curiously developed role such as this.
Brawny Brandon O'Neill is a natural comic in the role of ex-footballer Wreck, making even "Pass That Football" (one of the score's weaker links) a rousing number, and Nicole Boote is a kick as his girlfriend Helen. As Eileen's two chief suitors Chad Jennings makes an endearingly goofy Frank while Jim Gall is a hilarious wolf in, well, wolf's clothing as newspaperman Chick Clark. Such Seattle theatre notables as Richard Gray, Greg Michael Allen, Bhama Roget, and Neil Badders (to name just a few) offer vivid moments as the rest of a New York City which never sleeps because it is too busy singing and dancing. And the dancing, to killer numbers like "Christopher Street," "My Darlin' Eileen" and "Swing" is choreographed by the always stalwart, and here exceptionally inspired, Jamie Rocco.
Joel Fram's musical direction of a traditional large (over twenty) pit orchestra does Bernstein's music full justice. Tom Sturge's scenic design, newly created for this production (which is joy enough), is like a series of vintage, retro NYC postcards come to life, and Sturge also designed the show's accomplished lighting. Lynda Salsbury costumes the large cast with period integrity and gloriously technicolored outfits.
Wonderful Town resets the bar higher for local, professional musical theatre productions. Most importantly, it reinforces the notion that our hometown talent is as good as, and often better than, what you can see on Broadway - and at lower ticket prices.
Wonderful Town runs through April 9 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., downtown Seattle. For more information visit the 5th on-line at www.5thavenuetheatre.org.