Chicago Theatre Review
Wonderful Town – Goodman Theatre
Two naive sisters pack up their dreams and a handful of belongings and leave the Buckeye State, landing in the Big Apple, with the hope of starting an exciting, brand new life in Manhattan. Little do they realize what awaits them in this fast-paced city. Weaving their way through the commotion of bustling New Yorkers, on their way to and from work, as well as curious tourists snapping photos of the sights, the girls meet their crazy Greek landlord. He ushers them into a subterranean “garden level” hovel on Christopher Street. Soon strangers are peering through their dirty window and even walking in unannounced. Ruth and Eileen collapse in bed that first night wondering, “Why did we ever leave Ohio?”
It’s a fond welcome to the 50’s in Mary Zimmerman’s delightful, colorful production that opens the Goodman Theatre’s new season of plays and musicals. This show, from the Golden Era of Musicals, was composed by Leonard Bernstein in 1953, following the success of his 1944 musical, “On the Town,” and preceding his 1957 magnum opus, “West Side Story.” The musical was based upon the popular play, “My Sister Eileen,” which had been adapted from a collection of humorous, autobiographical short stories by Ruth McKenney. All three works tell of Ruth and her younger sibling Eileen, two small town Ohioans, who arrive in Manhattan’s mecca of creativity and free thinking, Greenwich Village, with visions of a new beginning. It details their adventures and misadventures involving finding love and beginning new careers, seasoned by a host of colorful, eccentric local characters.
The musical features a book by Joseph A. Fields, lyrics by the incomparable team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and an eclectic musical score by Bernstein. The show won five Tony Awards in 1953, including Best Musical. It starred Rosalind Russell and Edie Adams, and was later revived in 2003, starring Donna Murphy and Jennifer Westfeldt. That production was directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, who took home a Tony Award for Best Choreography.
This episodic musical comedy is a gentler, more innocent piece, reflective of its time, and stylistically similar to Bernstein’s “On the Town.” And, although the savvy theatergoer will notice melodic motifs from that earlier musical, they’ll recognize a few themes that will later find their way into the score of “West Side Story.” This sweetly charming tale weaves several subplots through the experiences and education of its two wide-eyed heroines who, like Bernstein’s earlier Candide, are on a journey of self-discovery.
Mary Zimmerman has skillfully guided her talented cast, many of whom play a variety of roles, through Ruth and Eileen’s urban odyssey. Choreographed with wit and whimsy and a good deal of athleticism by Alex Sanchez, this show is continually moving and shaking. There are a few charming ballads, such as the haunting “Ohio,” the lovely and reflective “A Quiet Girl” and the beautifully simple, “It’s Love.” But most of the songs inspire big dance numbers that feature most of the ensemble. Songs like “Christopher Street, “Pass the Football,” the rousing “My Darlin’ Eileen,” which looks like an homage to Riverdance, and the exciting, comical “Conga.” With spot on musical direction by the always brilliant Doug Peck, and accompaniment by Ben Johnson’s terrific 17-piece pit orchestra, this seldom produced classic musical is lush and magical.
Todd Rosenthal has designed a colorful, mobile set that resembles a child’s set of wooden toys. Skyscrapers move around the stage, clouds and airplanes slowly fly through the air and the Sherwood sister’s Greenwich Village apartment rises up from beneath the stage. The effect is simple and innocent-looking, just like the musical itself. Ana Kuzmanic’s beautiful period costumes and Charles LaPointe’s slightly exaggerated hair and wig creations awaken memories of “I Love Lucy” and “The December Bride.” TJ Gerckens completes the visual splendor of this production, lighting the Goodman stage with sparkle and joy. The show’s sound design is the only element found wanting, with the brass-heavy orchestra sometimes dominating in the amplification and sometimes drowning out Comden and Green’s delicious lyrics.
One of Chicago’s finest comic musical theatre actresses, Bri Sudia brings Ruth Sherwood to life and makes her more than a caricature. She’s an intelligent, spunky, real-life woman with career goals and forgotten dreams of romance. Ms. Sudia is the centerpiece of this excellent production and is the character with whom most audience members will relate. Beautiful Broadway star Lauren Molina, who has dazzled audiences as Johanna in the revival of “Sweeney Todd,” as well as portraying Cunegonde in Mary Zimmerman’s visionary production of “Candide,” is Ruth’s younger, more innocent sister. As Eileen Sherwood, Ms. Molina lights up the stage with her radiant smile, while charming the dickens out of every character in the play. Blessed with a crystal clear soprano voice, Lauren Molina charms with her renditions of “A Little Bit in Love,” “My Darlin’ Eileen” and, with Ms. Sudia, “Ohio.”
Handsome Karl Hamilton is every inch the leading heartthrob, newspaperman Robert Baker. Providing some unexpected comic moments, as well as making both Ruth and Eileen swoon with his understated romance, Mr. Hamilton croons such wonderful songs as “What a Waste,” “A Quiet Girl” and the hilariously performed “It’s Love.” After leaving audiences laughing in Goodman’s “Vanya +Sonya+Masha+Spike,” hunky Jordan Brown is back in his short shorts once again. He plays the girls’ macho, athletic neighbor, Wreck, whose number “Pass the Football” involves everyone in the game.
The ensemble is made up of some of Chicago’s finest triple threats, including terrific comic actors like Amy J. Carle as snobby Mrs. Wade; Kristin Villanueva as her daughter, Helen; James Earl Jones as animated Speedy Valenti; Matt DeCaro as the sisters’ pushy landlord, Mr. Appopolous; the very funny Steven Strafford as persistent suitor Chick Clark; an hilarious Wade Elkins as nervous, enthusiastic love interest, Frank Lippencott; George Andrew Wolff as smiling Irish tenor policeman, Lonigan; and Christina Hall as a slinky, sexy Violet, the local sidewalk hostess.
This is a beautiful, colorful production and another feather in director Mary Zimmerman’s cap. The show’s a sparkling opening to the Goodman’s new season. It’s rewarding to see and hear Leonard Bernstein’s seldom-produced musical classic, given a loving revival in the Windy City that will long be remembered for its sass, humor and optimism. With gorgeous music and great, comic performances, this flashback to the unoffensive 1950’s is a welcome breath of fresh air.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 20-October 23 by the Goodman Theatre,170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available by visiting the theatre box office, by calling them at 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/WonderfulTown.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.