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A CurtainUp Review

Wonderful Town

A Look at the New Sisters

Brooke Shields & Jennifer Hope Wills
Brooke Shields as Ruth Sherwood & Jennifer Hope Wills as her sister Eileen
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
This gloriously old-fashioned but never old-hat show lives up to its title adjective, and Brooke Shields has sprinkled the role of Ruth Sherwood with her own stardust. Simply put she has made Wonderful Town more wonderful than ever. Terrific as Murphy was, Brooks is a formidable, funny and lovable Ruth.

How can the gorgeous ex-super model and memorable Pretty Baby can possibly be a convincing second banana to her man-magnet pretty sister Eileen? Trust me. Shields manages to transform those camera friendly perfect features and her tall curvaceous frame with enough comic nuances to make Ruth come across as gorgeously awkward. A husky Ohio twang (plus a Max Factor makeup and period hairdo) complete the wisecracking persona of the smart girl who can recount "A Hundred Ways " to lose a man.

Wonderful Town being as much a story of sisterly as romantic love, there's also a new guy-getting sister Eileen. Jennifer Hope Wills's delicately sexy Eileen and gorgeous soprano set off Brooks's husky-voice and skyscraper height to perfection. Greg Edelman falls a little bit in love with Eileen and all the way into heaven with Ruth as delightfully as ever -- if anything, he's become more endearingly nerdy.

With the three key roles in such expert hands Wonderful Town still adds up to more than two and a half hours of scintillating show tunes, dancing staged with a savvy mix of concert (the band's right on stage) and big show pizzazz. The large cast has inevitably undergone some other changes -- for example, Tom Mardirosian now plays Appopolous, the girls' landlord and under-appreciated artist, Ray Wills is Chick Clark and Kate Baldwin is Helen. Even the orchestra has changed, with Joshua Rosenblum and his musicians now on stage. None of these changes have affected the show adversely and
director Kathleen Marshall has seen to it that the show is still has the color and sparkle of a freshly picked bouquet. -- Re-reviewed by Elyse Sommer, 12/01/04.
Closing 1/30/05.

-- Wonderful Town reviewed hen it opened in 2003
. . .Why did we fly? Why did we roam?
Oh, why oh, why, oh--
Did we leave Ohio?. . .,

--- Ruth, as memories of the comforts of home intrude on the earlier ode to "Christopher Street" where " Life is mad/ Life is sweet."
Donna Murphy as Ruth Sherwood &  Jennifer Westfeldt  as Eileen Sherwood
Donna Murphy as Ruth Sherwood & Jennifer Westfeldt as Eileen Sherwood
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
It may be half a century old but that doesn't keep Wonderful Town from being the most tuneful, entertaining, across-the-board audience pleasing musical in town. The applause from old-timers who remember the 1953 hit (559 performances at the Winter Garden) and those seeing it for the first time must resonate in that heavenly corner reserved for the theater's best and brightest, like composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Maybe Bernstein and Green are watching Al Hirschfeld sitting in his heavenly barber chair, sketching the Ruth (Donna Murphy) and Eileen (Jennifer Westfeldt) now singing and dancing up a storm in the theater renamed in his honor.

In case you're unfamiliar with the plot (derived from a series of short stories by Ruth McKenney) that drives the baker's dozen of songs: Ruth Sherwood and her irresistible to men younger sister Eileen are two country mice who've left Ohio to pursue their dream of writing and acting careers in New York City. The year is 1935, but the Great Depression hasn't prevented young people like these gals from trying their luck which lands them in the center of artistic hustle and bustle, Greenwich Village. After many adventures and misadventures, the sisters' plaintive "why, oh why did I ever leave Ohio?" gives way to the expected all's wonderful end: Eileen makes her debut in a local night club; an attractive young editor (himself a recent émigré from Duluth, Minn) helps the less man-savvy Ruth to find not only her own voice instead of aping the likes of Ernest Hemingway but falls in love with her.

This fluffy as whipped cream plot is buoyed mostly by its baker's dozen of sophisticated, tonally varied duets, solos and sprightly, danceable ensemble numbers. But fluffy as it may be and despite some dated allusions (Mitzi Green, Dizzy Dean, Major Bowes), the overall quality of the music and lyrics is timeless and the Sherwood sisters' story speaks to this day to the adventurous dreamer's vision of New York as a wonderful, anything can happen town. Though I grew up in New York, half my co-workers at my post-college editorial job, were migrants from far away towns. My adorable grandson wouldn't be here if his mother hadn't had the urge and courage to leave her newspaper reporter's job in South Bend, Indiana to try her luck in New York City. With New York's ever growing population and zooming rents, the Wonderful Town ensemble might be singing about a street on the lower East Side, Washington Heights, Park Slope, Williamsburg or Long Island City instead of "Christopher Street." Donna Murphy, a veteran of a variety of musical genres (Passion and a revival of The King and I on Broadway, and the too little seen Song of Singapore and Hello, Again off Broadway), is as ideal a Ruth as you could hope for. Ignore any comparisons to Rosalind Russell who created the role. Russell was a fine comedienne who managed to turn her being neither singer or dancer into an asset, but Murphy has a big, powerful voice and is a super agile dancer and she has enough comedic skills to navigate the whole spectrum of Ruth's personality traits: small-town propriety, self-deprecating plain Jane inferiority complex, yearning for love vulnerability and inhibition shedding conga dancer.

There's a marvelous chemistry between Murphy and her stage sister, an impressive Broadway debut for Jennifer Westfeldt. Looking every inch the adorable blonde who attracts men like a flower in a butterfly garden, Westfeldt 's credentials --she co-wrote, co-produced and starred in the movie Kissing Jessica Stein -- fit Eileen's being a lot smarter than she seems. She also has a lovely, clear soprano voice that beautifully harmonizes with Murphy's in the justifiably reprised "Ohio."

Donna Murphy  & Company  in  the showstopping  Conga number
Donna Murphy & Company in the showstopping "Conga."
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
The two stars are well supported by the large cast of Greenwich Village denizens, New York commuters and the show's show-stopping crew of conga dancing Brazilian naval cadets -- all of whom deliver the lyrics so that each word can be understood and appreciated. Greg Edelman last seen as the roving-eyed prince in Into the Woods is appealing as the somewhat nerdy editor who immediately spots what's wrong and right about Ruth's writing, but takes a little longer to recognize her as the love of his life. The many people traipsing in and out of Ruth and Eileen's basement room, and past its street view window include the always reliable David Margulies who is clearly having a wonderful time as their artist-landlord; Nancy Anderson (as delightful in a red wig as she was when last seen as a blonde) and Raymond Jaramillo McLeod, as a couple "living in sin"; Stanley Wayne Mathis, who manages the Village Vortex and employs Ruth to carry a sandwich board and Eileen as a singer.

My recollections of the original staging tend to be a somewhat hazy mix of play and movie versions. But, as Donna Murphy is a Ruth who stands on her own, the current production which follows the format of having the band on stage and focusing on the talent rather than over-elaborate sets, works just fine. As with Chicago, which also originated as part of the Encores revival series, the creative team spearheading this production have banished any concerns that audiences will see this more as a concert than a musical.

Rob Fisher's band is as crucial to the success of the show as the performers and deserves to be on stage rather than tucked out of sight in an orchestra pit. Scenic designer John Lee Beatty, whose finely detailed sets have often caused theater goers to dream of having him "do ", their homes, here proves what can be done with drop down scrims and props to satisfactorily evoke the Greenwich Village of 1935. Martin Pakledinaz's costumes may just bring back angel sleeved print dresses and big brimmed hats.

Kathleen Marshall's direction taps into the good-natured, light-hearted humor. Her choreography is fresh and chockfull of nimble production numbers that, besides the memorable "Conga " routine, include an amusing Irish jig for Eileen and the policemen who outdo each other make her the most pampered cellmate in Manhattan and the penultimate, high energy "Wrong Note Rag. "

It should be noted that even Comden and Green's lyrics and Leonard Bernstein's score don't always guarantee a successful revival. When George C. Wolfe brought back On the Town, it failed to generate its former sizzle. Bells Are Ringing (with music by Jule Styne) also proved to be a case of a hit whose time had come and gone. Thus, Wonderful Town, while a welcome addition to the current Broadway offerings, still leaves the musical theater desperately in need of newly minted musicals to keep this most American of theatrical genres going and growing.

On the Town
Bells Are Ringing

Book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Based on the play My Sister Eileen by Mr. Fields and Mr. Chodorov, and the stories by Ruth McKenney
Directed and Choreographed by Kathleen Marshall
Music Director and Vocal Arranger: Rob Fisher
Script Adaptation: David Ives
Starring Donna Murphy (Ruth Sherwood) and Jennifer Westfeldt (Eileen Sherwood). With: Nancy Anderson (Helen), Ken Barnett (Tour Guide), Peter Benson (Frank Lippencott), Randy Danson (Mrs. Wade),Gregg Edelman (Robert Baker), David Eggers Rick Fauno (Italian Waiter), David Margulies (Appopolous), Raymond Jaramillo McCleod (Wreck), Michael McGrath (Chick Clark), Linda Mugleston (Violet), Vince Pesce (Italian Chef), Mark Price (Kid), Devin Richards (Drunk),Timothy Shew (Officer Lonigan), , Stanley Wayne Mathis (Speedy Valenti), Ray Wills (Strange Man and Shore Patrolman).
Set Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design:Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design: Lew Mead
Hair Design: Paul Huntley
Make-up Design: Angelina Avallone
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including 1-15 minutes intermission.
Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 West 45th Street212-239-6200
Opening 11/24/03
Tuesday to Saturday @8pm, Wednesday & Saturday @2pm, Sunday @3pm
From 11/24/03. Kids Okay 8 and up though teens and their parents and grandparents and singles of all ages are the core audience
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 11/26/03 performance
Musical Numbers
Ed. Note: The numbers are in exact order of the original production -- Comden and Green's participation in some of the numbers, as well as some changes which showcase Murphy's singing and dancing virtuosity are noted parenthetically.
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Overture/Orchestra
  • Christopher Street/Tour Guide, tourists and villagers
  • Ohio/Ruth and Eileen
  • Conquering New York/Ruth, Eileen, Frank,and Company
  • One Hundred Easy Ways/Ruth
  • What a Waste/Baker and AssociateEditors
  • Ruth's Story Vignettes/ Baker, Ruth, Associate Editors/(originally Ms. Comden and Mr. Green, Rexford, Mr. Mallory, Danny Trent and Ruth)
  • A Little Bit in Love/Eileen
  • Pass the Football/Wreck, Villagers
  • Conversation Piece/ Eileen, Frank, Baker Ruth, Chick(originally Ms. Comden and Mr. Green, Ruth, Eileen, Frank, Baker and Chick)
  • A Quiet Girl/Baker
  • A Quiet Girl (reprise)/Ruth (added to original)
  • Conga/Ruth, Cadets
  • Conga (Reprise)/Company (added)
Act Two
  • My Darlin Eileen/Officer Langdon, Eileen, Policeman (Eileen and Policeman)
  • Swing! Ruth, Villagers
  • Ohio (Reprise)/Ruth and Eileen
  • It's Love/ Eileen, Baker and the Villagers (originally Baker and Villagers)
  • Wrong Note Ring/Ruth, Eileen, Villagers
  • Finale/Company
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