White bread look at 50s Village bohemia returns Donna Murphy to stage
But there’s a cure for anyone eager to shake off Broadway’s recent maladies, and it takes only two-and-a-half delightful hours at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre to do so.
That’s where the charismatic, funny and crowd-pleasing revival of the 1953 musical “Wonderful Town” is currently putting smiles on weathered theatergoers’ faces.
A big juicy kiss to New York City, this delightfully retro musical, featuring a score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is corny, good-hearted, and oh-so shiny, just the way they used to make ‘em.
Although the show may not have the name recognition of other 50s musicals, it does have the power houseactress Donna Murphy and some of the most vivacious chorus boys on Broadway to help breathe magical life into this little-show-that-could.
The story is hackneyed yet manages to charm. Ruth Sherwood (Murphy) and her sister Eileen (Jennifer Westfeldt, making her Broadway debut) arrive in New York City fresh-faced and wide-eyed from Columbus, Ohio in search of jobs and men.
The sisters move into a small Greenwich Village apartment, near Christopher Street of all places, where they meet “interesting people.” They quickly realize that if they’re going to find success in a city full of hucksters and bohemians they’re going to have to play up their individual strengths: Ruth has her journalism background and Eileen has her looks.
That’s about as much conflict as this show allows. The dowdy but savvy Ruth rubs against her more hot-to-trot, yet naïve sibling, but it’s a rivalry that never turns nasty. The two play up their strengths in tandem to ward off overeager suitors and hard-nosed employers, and even team up in the hilarious woe-is-me ditty “Ohio.”
With the help of their neighbors, including football lug Wreck (Raymond Jaramillo McLeod), his overprotective wife Helen (Nancy Anderson), and the resident crackpot painter Appopolous (David Margulies), the sisters finagle their way into men’s hearts. Ruth sets her eyes on editor Robert (the bored-looking Gregg Edelman), and Eileen is in the bull’s-eye of almost every man she meets, including groups of tongue-wagging police officers, sailors, and tourists.
Exactly who finds love as the curtain falls might come as a surprise to anyone who expects to see a by-the-book book––written by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov.
Director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall originally staged “Wonderful Town” at the Encores! Series in 2000. Here she has crafted an expanded musical that stays true to its old-fashioned roots without turning syrupy.
The dance numbers, especially the toe-tapping “Conga” number featuring Murphy and a gaggle of butt-wiggling sailors, are joys to watch. It’s nearly impossible to keep your eyes off dancer Rick Faugno, a compact dynamo who flies through the air.
Marshall has wisely cast the show with a number of African-American actors, a decision which leads to the show’s funniest moment. When Eileen is taken to the police station after being arrested for a public disturbance, she is serenaded (“My Darlin’ Eileen”) by a chorus of – what else? – Irish cops. Among them is an African-American with the thickest brogue this side of Dublin.
Marshall is aided by John Lee Beatty’s gilded sets, Don Walker’s orchestration (the lush-sounding band is seated onstage), and Martin Pakledinaz’s fresh-faced, even wearable costumes.
A word of caution: call me antsy, but the sound effect of an explosion––the sisters live above an under-construction subway line––was nerve rattling.
But the real star is two-time Tony Award-winning Murphy, who’s back after missing numerous shows due to a bout with the flu. With the comedic timing of a pro, Murphy is simply fantastic as the gutsy Ruth, a role originally written for Rosalind Russell.
Without bowing to the temptation to channel Roz, she sinks her considerable vocal chops into the scenery-chewing song “100 Easy Ways (to Lose a Man),” making it fresh and deliciously droll.
Westfeldt, who co-starred in and co-wrote the lesbian-themed film “Kissing Jessica Stein,” is sweet as Eileen, but fails to nail the right mix of fear and exhilaration experienced by New York newcomers. Still, her soprano is perfectly saccharine, and acts as the ideal accompaniment to Murphy’s meatier voice.
“Wonderful Town” has appeal broad enough to please musical theater nuts, tourists, and even jaded New Yorkers looking for a holiday pick-me-up. Whether or not it will have the legs to stand past the new year is questionable.
But until that time, there’s no better way to catch some holiday cheer than by taking a vacation to this wonderful “Wonderful Town.”