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. Starring Brooke Shields, Jennifer Hope Wills, David Margulies, Ray Wills, Raymond Jaramillo McLeod, Peter Benson. Also starring Kate Baldwin, Darrin Baker, James Clow, Martha Hawley, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Linda Mugleston, Timothy Shew; Carol Bentley, Jordan Cable, Susan Derry, Stephanie Fredricks, Ashley Hull, J. Elaine Marcos, Lisa Mayer, Carolyn Ockert, Michael O'Donnell, Dennis Stowe, Alex Sanchez, Jeffrey Schecter, Matthew Shepard, J.D. Webster, Lee A. Wilkins, Laurie Williamson, and Gregg Edelman.
Sometimes a step backward really is a step forward. Don't believe me? Then why not ask Brooke Shields, the screen beauty and occasional Broadway headliner who's recently taken over as star of the revival of Wonderful Town at the Al Hirschfeld?
In replacing the beguiling Donna Murphy, Shields hasn't so much replicated her performance as rejuvenated the role of Ruth Sherwood and the show itself. She hasn't done it, it should be mentioned, through the application of a new kind of show-biz razzle-dazzle; instead, Shields triumphs by taking the show back to its roots. And in doing so, she's found something that Murphy - while excellent in the role - somehow lacked.
Shields's Ruth is always gawky and insecure, as uncomfortable with herself as she is with others. The rumbly way she delivers her comic quips suggests a self-deprecating instinct honed while playing the wallflower or standing in the shadows, most likely those cast by her younger and prettier sister Eileen. While Shields herself is still a head-turner, never do you question Ruth's attitude about her own appearance or the lack of affection lavished on her. She has so little self-confidence, why would anyone give her a second glance? This is an innately beautiful woman, but one so wrapped up in herself, she's never been able to really demonstrate it. It's a different take, but it works surprisingly well most of the time.
Only during Ruth's early comedy song, "One Hundred Easy Ways," in which she outlines a handful of ways she can keep even the most promising relationship from blossoming, does this work against the character. As delivered by Shields, it's like Ruth is trying out this material for a club act. Otherwise, Shields's Ruth melts and absorbs herself into the hustle-bustle of New York City (she and Eileen recently moved there together) even more gradually and convincingly than Murphy did, and her transformation is ultimately more absolute.
In numbers like the rollicking first-act finale "Conga!" or the second-act character showpiece "Swing," it's clear that Ruth is beginning to find ways to love her lumbering walk and stilted manner. That confidence reaches its delectable zenith in "Wrong Note Rag" at evening's end, when Ruth is sure enough of herself do sing and dance alongside her sister in a strangely heartwarming tribute to their total New York integration. Sacrificing a bit of musical-comedy polish for that kind of payoff feels like a fair trade.
That's not to say that the ever-charming Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph score suffers; it doesn't. The music, so individual in its throbbing, angular New York sound and bursting with melody and heartfelt tribute to the city, Wonderful Town's tunestack is a welcome antidote to the considerably less invigorating and accomplished scores of most recent new musicals. Songs bounce, surge, and excite; "Christopher Street," "A Little Bit in Love," "It's Love," and the others here never lose their luster. (While the orchestra's still great, it seems to have thinned out a bit since the show's opening last November.)
The rest of the company shines as well. Gregg Edelman has loosened up considerably as Ruth's potential romance, Bob Baker, and is now much funnier and more dynamic. Peter Benson, as one of Eileen's many suitors, and Raymond Jaramillo McLeod, as a football-playing-neighbor, are even more likeable this time around; Ray Wills is a fine, oily replacement as scheming newspaperman Chick Clark. Jennifer Hope Wills is also terrific as Eileen, as youthful and beautiful as the show requires, and singing in a more appropriate and luscious soprano manner than previous Eileen Jennifer Westfeldt did.
The rest of the show, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall (who won a Tony for her brightly energetic, if occasionally underpowered, dances), remains a bit uneven and occasionally too redolent of the production's Encores! Concert-staging past. Yet the score and book (by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, adapted by David Ives) remain so full of joy, optimism, and good humor that it's easy to forgive what few things make this revival less than absolutely ideal.
After all, Wonderful Town is, at its core, a star vehicle. And Brooke Shields, like Donna Murphy and Rosalind Russell before her, gloriously proves she's up to the task of carrying and reinvigorating the show. The result remains an entertaining - and, yes, wonderful - achievement.