Wonderful visit to Goodman Theatre’s ‘Wonderful Town’

By Bill Beard

WT_05_LizLauren2Goodman has done it again! It has delivered another “oldie but goodie”! Two years ago I raved about their revival of Brigadoon, rarely produced, but a brilliant restoration and revitalization of a beautiful traditional musical, Learner and Lowe’s first big hit. Director/Choreographer Rachel Rockwell did a magnificent job of reviving the authentic lyricism and romance of the original 1947 hit and the 1954 film.

Now, the award-winning Mary Zimmerman has given us a “wonderful” adaptation of another vintage gem, Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 classic Wonderful Town, “a song-and-dance filled ode to New York City”.

From the promo notes: “Powered by Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, this whimsical love letter to Manhattan finds Ruth, an aspiring journalist, and her sister Eileen, a bombshell actress, leaving Ohio determined to conquer New York City. Roughing it in a dingy Manhattan basement apartment isn’t quite how the sisters imagined living, but they can’t resist the city’s bustling energy and soon find their professional and romantic hopes coming true. Chock-full of swinging show tunes and spectacular choreography, Wonderful Town captures the thrill of chasing one’s dreams like no other musical.”

WT_04_LizLaurenDirector Zimmerman has been a major force with The Goodman for more than 20 years; she has contributed greatly to this theatre’s reputation, national and international, as a consistently innovative, experimental, chance-taking leader in the forefront of American theatre. Her own personal eclecticism, with an absolutely splendid spectrum of dramatic challenges, is unmatchable. Wonderful Town seems completely out of place in her repertoire, except for her 2010 production of Candide, which of course was Bernstein’s magnificent musical adaptation of Voltaire’s epic satire. [By the by, her Candide was splendid and won her Jeff Award nominations for both adaptation and direction. I reviewed it and loved it. Google Curtain up with Bunbury.]

As usual, Ms. Zimmerman has assembled a distinctive cast of individuals. The most obvious choice was Lauren Molina, having done a marvelous Cunagunda in Candide for Zimmerman, and who exhibits the same delightful charm here in the role of Eileen, with an “…impish allure, a mischievous energy that invokes amusement and joy…” as I described her in Candide. Her marvelous coloratura voice is at its best in “A Little Bit of Love” and of course with Ruth in the harmony of the familiar “Ohio”.

But for the other leading roles, Ms. Zimmerman has reached beyond the expected casting; and sought…. and found…. the unusual, but spot-on types for the other major characters. For example, one might expect the role of Robert Baker to be played by the usual handsome leading man sort; but here we find the strong acting of Karl Hamilton with a powerful voice suitable for such former roles in The Most Happy Fella and The Christmas Schooner, and therefore handling this show’s lovely ballads, “It’s Love” and “A Quiet Girl”, with ease and assurance, while also exhibiting command of the comic elements of numbers like “What A Waste” with the men’s ensemble.

Another perfect casting put the amazing Wade Elkins in as Frank Lippencott, the Walgreens clerk pursuing Eileen’s favor. Elkins is one of those innately blessed comedic geniuses with a combination of instinctive clown sensibility and a tall, lanky pretzel body to express it all. He is able to create a consistently comic character while just avoiding caricature chaos.

But certainly the most brilliant piece of intuitive casting was that of Bri Sudia in the lead role of Ruth. This character is most associated with the inimitable styling of Rosalind Russell, who created the role in the original 1942 movie, My Sister Eileen, and reprised it again in 1953 for the then new hit Broadway musical, Wonderful Town (559 performances, 5 Tony Awards). Since then, the role of Ruth has usually fallen into that Roz Russell style. But Ms. Sudia brings an entirely new and different Ruth to life; and she is fantastic.

Her Ruth is certainly not the pretty young innocent ingenue like Eileen; she is also not the typical elegant, effervescent Roz type either. Ms. Sudia plays Ruth with a dry, droll, almost acerbic dead pan veneer, with a devilishly spicy ready wit beneath, which works perfectly for the many zingers in the script (from the original book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov). The best example of her comedic style is perfectly displayed in her show stopping “One Hundred Easy Ways (to lose a man)”. This woman is a “mistress of comedy”! Believe me, this is a Ruth you’ve not met before, and the role which will put Bri Sudia on your “must see in whatever she’s starring in” list.

Of course, Bernstein’s music is terrific. Vocally, the cast is uniformly top notch,  and finds every nuance, from raucous fun to poignant drama. The orchestra under Ben Johnson is exceptional, which is a must for this score; their handling of the very traditional Overture was superb.

Kudoes to several other “special performers in special roles”: Jordan Brown and Kristin Villanueva as Ruth and Eileen’s neighbors, Wreck, the brain-challenged ex-football player, and his devoted squeeze, Helen, who are “shacked up” next door and want to get married. But they must hide it all from Helen’s up-tight mother, played brilliantly by Amy J. Carle. The three comprise a frenetic hide-and-seek trio.

Add to the mix Matt DeCaro as flea-bag land lord, Appopulous, with an uncredited man-size hilarious cockroach; Christina Hall as Violet, the former tenant whose Johns keep trying to “patronize” Eileen and Ruth; and Steven Strafford as slimy Chick Clark, a questionable Editor interested in Ruth’s writing, but only if she includes him in her next seamy plot. The resulting events make for a fun evening.

If the whole recipe sounds like a nutty fruitcake, it is. But Director Zimmerman serves it up like a gourmet dessert. Her concept of carefully controlled cartoon is splendidly developed and only rarely approaches the saccharine or the syrupy, and never tastes over-baked.

The absolutely ingenious set designs by Tony Award winning Todd Rosenthal supply a solid two-dimensional foundation for the whole production, with cardboard cutouts of skyscrapers, large white fluffy clouds and tiny jet planes moving across the blue cyclorama. Miniature super-fast trains speed across the front of the floor of the stage, and tiny taxi cabs go flying across attached to skate boards manned by shadowed riders. This ingenious, imaginative treatment creates the perfect setting for Zimmerman’s concept. We accept the ‘larger-than-life’ world of this wonderful town peopled with eccentric but lovable characters, almost caricatures, but not quite cartoonish.

WT_07_LizLaurenThe choreography by the talented Alex Sanchez covers the full range, from the famous conga with a crew of Brazilian sailors, to a ‘River dance’ with Eileen and her friendly Irish cops, to Ruth’s finally letting loose with “Swing”, the song and the dance. Nota Bona: And let me bring special attention to the choreographic use of one very versatile dancer, one Nathaniel Braga, who uses an explosive combination of gymnastic agility, derring-do and just plain good fun to add spectacular feats to some already stunning dancing. Bravo.

Obviously, I highly recommend seeing this production. This is a marvelous old “chestnut” of a musical. You won’t see it often. And Goodman is always an absolutely dependable theatre adventure. Wonderful Town has now been extended through October 23. Phone 312-443-3800, or go online at GoodmanTheatre.org/WonderfulTown.

(Photos courtesy of Liz Lauren and Goodman Theatre.)

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