By Erin Fleming
At the Goodman’s revival of Wonderful Town, the set, singing and overall quality of performance thankfully shine through the reality of a pretty simple story in an unnecessarily complicated way.
The premise is tried and (nearly) true: two sisters, Ruth and Eileen, opposites in every way, pack up their provincial pluck and leave their Midwestern home to chase big dreams in the Big Apple. It’s only nearly true because book writers Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov based it on the 1940 play, My Sister Eileen, which was itself loosely based on Ruth McKenney’s autobiographical short stories from the 1930s. It’s not an inspired script, even less so when compared to Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s smart, savvy lyrics, which are expertly showcased in numbers like “One Hundred Easy Ways (To Lose A Man)” and “It’s Love.”
Perhaps in part to combat the limitations of this odd script, Director Mary Zimmerman wisely moves the setting from the 1930s to the 1950s, and directs her cast to add a bit of camp and smirk to their performances, which plays well.
As one might expect, fate favors the bold sisters. Providence complies. Luck is with them. Within minutes of stumbling into a seedy section of Greenwich Village, they find a cheap, bug-infested basement apartment and instant new friends: a crazy collection of cool cats, hep hipsters, cops, criminals, salesmen, sailors, landlords and ladies of the evening—all of whom prove amicable witnesses to the women’s ritual of passage. Even the cockroach is adorable, played by an ensemble member in a big brown suit with expert scurrying abilities.
The next two hours are full of typical coming-of-age complications: humiliating jobs, chance encounters, romantic entanglements and misunderstandings. Nothing too serious. The awkwardness of a young hostess’ first dinner party, nicely captured in “Conversation Piece,” and a benign brush with the law, ending in a chorus of Irish cops harmonizing to their “Darlin’ Eileen,” is about as gritty as this version of Gotham gets. It’s a story about youth and dreams, after all.
Lauren Molina charms as Eileen, the pretty, petite sister who aspires to be an actress. Bria Sudia commands every scene as the wisecracking Ruth, the struggling writer looking for an opportunity worthy of her talents. Sudia uses a Dorothy Parker kind of deadpan to great effect, commenting on the absurdities around her, such as the lucky breaks that seem to land in her sister’s lap effortlessly. Molina plays Eileen with such a natural sweetness that it’s easy to see why her sister doesn’t begrudge her much. The two actresses make a great comedy duo, and sound spectacular together on the close harmonies of “Ohio,” one of the few actual hummable melodies of the complicated score.
Jordan Brown as the off-season football hero Wreck and Wade Elkins as Frank Lippencott are fantastic physical comedians, James Earl Jones II (Speedy Valenti), Steven Strafford (Chick Clark) and Matt Decaro (Appopolous) compensate for the weak dialogue provided their characters with funny, over the top performances. Christina Hall (Violet) and Amy Carl (Mrs. Wade) also work hard to bring out the humor in their short scenes.
Amid all the overly-stylized portrayals of the neighborhood characters, it is the authentic, mutually-supportive relationship between the Sherwood sisters, as well as the naturalistic, nice-guys-finish-last appeal of Karl Hamilton’s Robert Baker that lift up an otherwise outdated and contrived book.
Swing, Jazz, and Big Band aficionados, as well as the more forgiving fans of Leonard Bernstein will revel in the gorgeous arrangements of the 17-piece orchestra, led by Ben Johnson. Some might describe much of the score as overly intricate, but the flawless ensemble is clearly having a great time dancing to it. Alex Sanchez’s choreography pulls out some laughs and drives the pace, especially with the big showstopper numbers “Swing!” and “Conga.” And everyone looks amazing in Ana Kuzmanic’s colorful, jazzy mid-century costumes.
Aside from the standout performances, the next most wonderful aspect of the show is the town itself. Todd Rosenthal’s big, bright set design is an imaginative throwback to the old fashioned magic and spectacle of Broadway. Based on the drawings of graphic designer Steve Duncan, they evoke New York in its best light, using a jewel-tone palette and shapes suggestive of well-known city iconography, calling to mind vintage maps and travel advertisements. This is the optimistic New York of a young girl’s dream, populated by cartoonish cardboard cut-out buildings with planes and trains that move across the stage, and clouds that bob up and down in the sky, sometimes so close that a man in love can reach up and touch one.
Even burdened by an odd script with an antiquated tone, the cast and creative team of Wonderful Town have come together to pull out all the moments worth saving in this piece, managing to maintain a blissful innocence without irritating modern sensibilities too much. In the end, it’s hard to argue against the message at its core: follow your dreams.
“Wonderful Town” runs through October 23 in the Albert at Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street Chicago. The production is the centerpiece of a Leonard Bernstein Celebration (September 27 – October 2 in the Goodman’s Alice Rapoport Center for Education and Engagement) of free special events that explore Bernstein’s career as a musical theater and film composer, classical composer, conductor, musician and educator. Free events include film screenings of “On the Town,” “On the Waterfront” and “West Side Story;” a “Conga! Swing!” dance class with choreography from Wonderful Town; and a series of concerts—including youth participants from the Goodman’s summer Musical Theater Intensive. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Liz Lauren.