Wonderful Town 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 Chodorove and the stories by Ruth McKenney. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Lew Mead. Hair Design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Original Orchestration by Don Walker. Music coordination by Seymour Red Press. Music Director and Vocal Arranger Rob Fisher. Starring Donna Murphy, Jennifer Westfeldt, David Margulies, Michael McGrath, Raymond Jaramillo McLeod, Peter Benson. Also starring Nancy Anderson, Ken Barnett, Randy Danson, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Linda Mugleston, Timothy Shew, Ray Wills, Joyce Chittick, Susan Derry, Randy Donaldson, David Eggers, Rick Faugno, Stephanie Fredricks, Lorin Latarro, Lisa Mayer, Tina Ou, Vince Pesce, Mark Price, Devin Richards, Angela Robinson, Matthew Shepard, Megan Sikora, J.D. Webster, and Gregg Edelman.
For the most part, it's been a dreary month for Broadway. But now there are finally signs that November and the season itself are turning around. They've come just in time, riding into New York on the back of a bright, flashy, musical that, at 50 years old, feels younger and fresher than most of the shows currently passing for hip.
It's Wonderful Town, finally arriving in a warmly inviting revival at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre over three years after dazzling audiences as part of the City Center Encores! series. And if this production still bears an uncomfortable reminder or two of its concert-version past, and could use an additional boost of energy here or there, so what? Wonderful Town still has more concentrated, honest entertainment in any given five minutes than this season's other new Broadway musicals can muster up in any given hour.
Of course, expertly crafted musical comedies were still much the order of the day when Wonderful Town premiered on Broadway in 1953. With a book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov (based on their play My Sister Eileen, and Ruth McKenney's original stories), music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the show itself won raves for its story of two women who come to New York with the intent of winning it over, only to be won over themselves, and its now-classic score, which includes songs like "Ohio," "One Hundred Easy Ways," and "The Wrong Note Rag."
But it was leading lady Rosalind Russell who walked away with spectacular notices and helped establish the show as a smash hit, a musical comedy of uncommon distinction, and a major vehicle promising a wealth of opportunities for just the right star. If there's a star of today better suited to the role of Ruth Sherwood than Donna Murphy, it's probably too busy gallivanting around the heavens to pay much attention to Broadway.
Repeating her Encores! success as aspiring writer Ruth Sherwood, Murphy provides a detailed, gutsy, and thoroughly winning performance. She moves through a wider range of colors than most rainbows: uptight and unconfident when she first arrives to live on Christopher Street with her sister Eileen (Jennifer Westfeldt), she falls in love with editor Bob Baker (Gregg Edelman), and lets her hair down in spectacular fashion when she incites and submits to a Village-wide conga at the end of the first act.
Ruth's transformation from Ohio know-it-all to dyed-in-the-wool Village denizen is no less impressive than Murphy's move from accomplished dramatic musical actress (Passion, The King and I) to full-blown Broadway musical comedy star. As Ruth is engaged and enraptured by New York, so is Murphy herself being intoxicated by the spirit and energy at the center of a true Broadway musical comedy; that, in turn, engages us even more. We're rooting for both Ruth and Murphy to succeed, and neither lets us down.
But to be truly effective, both transformations need a colorful background. That's provided by the eccentric characters of the 1930s "artistic" Greenwich Village, which is itself an integral character in Wonderful Town. The moralizing police officer Lonigan (Timothy Shew); building superintendent Appopolous (David Margulies); the unmarried couple upstairs, Wreck and Helen (Raymond Jaramillo McLeod, repeating his Encores! Role, and the ever-delightful Nancy Anderson); and Speedy Valenti (Stanley Wayne Mathis), manager of the Village Vortex nightclub, all play roles in helping Ruth find and embrace the life she's always let pass her by.
Westfeldt's Eileen is appropriately inviting, a bombshell of admirable innocence and morality, yet never quite above using her physical assets to get what she wants. With Westfeldt, her "passing fancy" song, the classic and engagingly sung "A Little Bit In Love," makes perfect sense, setting up one of the play's funniest scenes at the top of the second act, when her indiscretions have landed her in jail, yet the officers can't bear to treat her like a prisoner. ("My Darlin' Eileen," the resulting song, an infectious Irish jig, is one of the highlights of the season and the year.)
Edelman is oddly ineffectual in his role, bearing an affected manner and unnaturally thin voice that seems unsuited to his music (such charmers as "A Quiet Girl" and "It's Love"), though his transition from reluctant to accepting lover is handled well. Michael McGrath, as dissembling reporter Chick Clark, is also a bit underpowered, but has a less vital role than Edelman's; more inviting is McCleod, who relives his college days with "Pass That Football," or Peter Benson's wide-eyed and mild-mannered soda jerk, Frank Lippencott.
The rest of the production is something of a mixed bag. What unquestionably works is the orchestra - 24 glorious pieces, ten of them strings! - under the expert baton of Rob Fisher. To hear Bernstein's music played so well by so many players is a sheer joy (the overture alone is almost a religious experience), though with a downside: it make one realize how inadequate other recent revivals, with significant reductions in orchestra size and vitiated orchestrations, have sounded. Don Walker's thrilling original orchestrations and Lew Mead's responsible sound design give Wonderful Town the rich, big sound it needs.
But did the orchestra have to be onstage, hidden behind John Lee Beatty's attractive yet somewhat chintzy combination of scrims and mostly representative set pieces? And did David Ives's Encores!-style "book adaptation" need to be retained? Or could Kathleen Marshall, a prime Encores! mover and shaker herself, not provide direction and choreography that might release more of the inherent energy in the script and score? The lighting and costume plots (by Peter Kaczorowski and Martin Pakledinaz) are more complete and effective, but everyone should have gone full-out.
But with great material and a star like Murphy, how can one feel cheated? Wonderful Town is exactly the type of substantial, tuneful, and hilarious musical comedy Broadway needs right now, and while it's a shame an appropriate one could only apparently be found fifty years in the past, Broadway theatre is, for the time being, looking pretty darn wonderful.