Los Angeles Theater Review: WONDERFUL TOWN (Musical Theatre Guild)

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by Tony Frankel on November 23, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


“Charming” doesn’t begin to describe Musical Theatre Guild’s offering of the 1953 musical Wonderful Town. Even with a recent 2003 Broadway outing starring Donna Murphy, this breezy and buoyant musical comedy is rarely produced, making it perfect for a company whose mission it is to present concert staged readings of musicals which you will probably never get a chance to see (the Equity actors, who only have 25 hours to rehearse, hold their scripts). This was their inaugural production at their new intimate venue in Santa Monica, and for a first-time production there, this was a relatively bug-free night. While I wish this formidably talented gang would up the ante on their production values, beef up the five-member orchestra, and offer more performances, the technical mishaps and some under-prepared line readings can easily be forgiven when each and every memorized song blew me away. Boy, can these cats sing.

Lowe Taylor, Roy Leake, Jr. and Kristi Holden in Musical Theatre Guild's production of WONDERFUL TOWN.

Never heard of the musical? Well, certainly you’ve heard of composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Even though the songs are terrific, none of them have entered the hit parade. Bernstein offers catchy melodies in tunes that range from conga to an Irish jig, and the lyrics are fresh and remarkably witty.

Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov’s libretto is based on their 1940 play My Sister Eileen, which was adapted from Ruth McKenney’s short stories about her experiences growing up in Ohio and moving to New York with her sister. The musical capitalizes on just a few of her tales, centering on the girls’ beginnings in a basement Greenwich Village apartment, surrounded by the kooky characters that reside in this bohemian enclave. It’s essentially plot-free, but a series of silly misadventures with a heart ain’t bad when it contains some bright music (which Bernstein composed in just under five weeks). Ruth is a wannabe writer whose smarts keep her from catching a man. Eileen is a good-looking and naïve performer who attracts most every man she meets, including a newspaper man, a five and dime manager, and an Irish cop. The Big Apple takes a bite out of the sisters, but they learn about love and humility along the way.

Lowe Taylor, Kristi Holden and Ron Christopher Jones in Musical Theatre Guild's production of WONDERFUL TOWN.

Lowe Taylor nailed—and I mean NAILED—the role of Ruth, making her a perfect blend of defensive wisecracking dame and sympathetic, straightforward sibling. Ruth’s lamentation about the many ways she loses men, “One Hundred Easy Ways,” was a knockout eleven o’clock number that actually arrived early in the first act. Even with some slow cue pick-ups, pretty Kristi Holden captured the simplicity of Eileen, offering a honeyed “A Little Bit in Love,” in which she admits in a roundabout way that she likes when men fawn over her. Together, their duet in which they wonder why they left “Ohio” is both poignant and sincerely amusing.

Barihunk Damon Kirsche was in thrilling voice as Robert Baker, a frustrated editor who explains how talent doesn’t mean anything in a town that eats you up and spits you out. But he didn’t just conquer “What a Waste”; his forlorn simplicity combined with that controlled but powerful voice created an aching tenderness in “A Quiet Girl.”

Kristi Holden and Lowe Taylor in Musical Theatre Guild's production of WONDERFUL TOWN.

Eileen and Ruth have three boys over for dinner at once; when things get a bit uncomfortable, the quintet performs “Conversation Piece.” Along with Taylor, Holden and Kirsche were Will Collyer as the slimy newspaper scribe Chick Clark, and Jeffrey Scott Parsons as Walgreens manager Frank Lippencott. Parsons made a mini-monologue about a banana split-ordering customer uproarious. In fact, I particularly loved Parsons because his affable, goofy, socially-challenged character and seriously good pratfalls made me laugh out loud.

Adding to the fun was Roy Leake Jr. as Appopolous, an unscrupulous landlord and aspiring painter, Ron Christopher Jones as Speedy Valenti, a beat joint owner, and Jennifer Malenke as Violet, a dizzy dame with a live-in lover named Wreck. For whatever reasons, none of these characters were bestowed a song, yet our creators gave Wreck, an off-season football player, a ridiculously fun number. Matt Merchant took “Pass the Football” and ran with it, executing Lee Martino’s adorable choreography which had him jumping and rolling around the stage.

Kristi Holden and David Holmes in Musical Theatre Guild's production of WONDERFUL TOWN.

Conductor Dean Mora kept the tempos moving, and Geoff Nudell added nuance by speedily shifting his reeds. However, this is one musical that needs a big orchestra which can highlight Don Walker’s amazing orchestrations (there were six additional orchestrators on the show, including Irwin Kostal, who did the film scoring for West Side Story, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music). The bottom line is that the big singers in MTG deserve a bigger sound. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

photos by Alan Weston

Wonderful Town
Musical Theatre Guild
Moss Theatre at New Roads School
3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica
played on November 17, 2013

Next up for MTG:
Death Takes a Holiday (West Coast Premiere)
Sunday, February 9, 2014 – 7:00 PM
Ruthless! The Musical
Sunday, April 6, 2014 – 7:00 PM
City of Angels
Sunday, June 8, 2014 – 7:00 PM

for info and tickets, call 818-848-6844 or visit www.musicaltheatreguild.com

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Cris Franco November 24, 2013 at 11:41 am

MTG always delivers a vocally beautiful production. And I wholeheartedly agree that LOWE TAYLOR “nailed” the character of Ruth. In fact the whole cast was pretty perfect. A bigger orchestra to bring us Bernstein’s big score would have been thrilling. Most impressive is their intimate, Mark Taper Forum-style, venue. Here’s to hoping MTG’s new westside home brings it the audience and funding to replace L.A.’s now defunct REPRISE!


Lucille Gechtman November 24, 2013 at 12:15 pm

Not mentioned was Damon’s rendition of “It’s Love,” which lifted me from my seat. My favorite number.


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