Theater Review: ‘Wonderful Town’

By Sharon Kilarski, Epoch Times
October 2, 2016 6:39 pm Last Updated: October 2, 2016 6:39 pm

CHICAGO—Hope and naivety arrive in New York City in the early ’50s.  

How refreshing to be reminded of what New York’s Greenwich Village represented to aspiring artists for a good chunk of the 20th century: excitement, freedom from small minds in small towns, the possibility of becoming someone different, and for the young, the possibility of just becoming.  Director Mary Zimmerman sums up that image with her delightful “Wonderful Town.”

This work has sat on the shelves too long.

The 1950s Leonard Bernstein tuner, here also set in the ’50s, was originally based on Ruth McKenney’s comical stories of her own New York City adventures with her sister.

The supportive and loving Sherwood sisters have just arrived in the big city from Columbus, Ohio, and secure a squalid apartment in the Village. Beautiful and warm Eileen (Lauren Molina) is a magnet for men, who jump at the chance to do just about anything for her; she dreams of a stage career.  Ruth (Bri Sudia), witty and imaginative, has more luck losing than finding men; she wants to write.

In Eileen’s search, she meets a caddish director but also a geeky and sincere Walgreen’s manager (Wade Elkins) who lavishes sales-discounted items on the unemployed young wannabes.

Editor Robert Baker (Karl Sean Hamilton), in the center, sings
Editor Robert Baker (Karl Sean Hamilton), in the center, sings “What a Waste,” along with ensemble members. (Liz Lauren)

Ruth, after having her manuscripts rejected a depressing number of times, meets the kindly editor Bob Baker (Karl Sean Hamilton) who advises her to go back to Ohio before she becomes like the aspiring opera singer now on the street corner selling his wares by shouting, “fish!” A wasted talent.

The sisters meet a lively assortment of eccentrics: abstract painter/landlord Mr. Appopolous (Matt DeCaro); off-season football star Wreck (Jordan Brown), his fiancée Helen (Kristin Villanueva) and her snobby mother (Amy J. Carle); slimy newspaperman Chick Clark (Steven Strafford); swank nightclub owner Speedy Valenti (James Earl Jones II); a whole crew of Brazilian cadets; and a chorus of Irish cops.

Although the early stage play and movies were called “My Sister Eileen,” it is Ruth and her quest for happiness that is dead center. She has always had to live in the shadow of her sister’s more obvious charms, and now that shadow seems darker than ever.

As Ruth, Sudia’s comic flair perfectly balances her sincerity and provides a good match for the earnest portrayal of Bob Baker by Hamilton (with a lush and winning voice). As usual, musical comedies work best if the more sincere characters stand in the center, and the comic exaggerations are at the story’s periphery. Thus, Molina’s characterization of Eileen is slightly bigger than Sudia’s. Some of the purely comic characters are one step away from becoming too broad.

Ruth (Bri Sudia) sings
Ruth (Bri Sudia) sings “Swing” along with ensemble members in “Wonderful Town,” a musical by Leonard Bernstein. (Liz Lauren)

Trifles notwithstanding, Zimmerman has enlivened this fetching comedy and convinces us that the work has sat on the shelves too long.

From the moment that conductor Ben Johnson brings the full orchestra to life and we swing to the overture’s gaiety and humor, we are ready for the stream of ever-rearranging, cartoonish skyscrapers, the airplanes swimming across the sky, trains zipping across the stage, and businessmen topping motorized cars. Go, go, go!

If ever a basement apartment could send two girls scurrying back to the wholesome life they left behind it is the filthy one devised by designer Todd Rosenthal.

If ever the charm of costumes could widen eyes in merriment, it would these designed by Ana Kuzmanic: a color scheme of springtime oranges and greens, the occasional tongue-in-cheek black outfits, and one enormous critter (its identity cannot be given away).

If any choreography could pay homage to a wide-ranging styles of shows and movement, it is magic we see displayed by choreographer Alex Sanchez.

All these joys add to the cleverness of Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s song lyrics: “One Hundred Easy Ways” to lose a man (mostly by being quicker witted or more knowledgeable than one’s suitor), or “Swing!” in which uptight meets relaxed when an inhibited Ruth starts feeling the beat.

These surprises enchant and refresh us, making it very hard to give up our seats at the show’s end.

‘Wonderful Town’
Goodman Theatre
170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago
Tickets: 312-443-3800 or GoodmanTheatre.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Closes: Oct. 23