Chicago Theater Review: WONDERFUL TOWN (Goodman Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 20, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Wonderful indeed. Wonderful Town, Leonard Bernstein’s 1952 tribute to the ever juicy Big Apple, has been wrongly overshadowed by the other N.Y.C. musicals he wrote before and after—On The Town and West Side Story. It more than holds its own. With captivating lyrics by the wizard team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green and a propulsive book by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov (based on their 1942 film My Sister Eileen and stories by Ruth McKenney), this 2½ hour romp is a heartfelt paean to the little folks of a great city.

Ensemble members Erica Stephan, Steven Strafford, Sharriese Hamilton, Aaron Holland, Nathaniel Braga and Todd Rhoades perform “Christopher Street” in Wonderful Town.

Featuring beautiful ballads and incandescent dancing, including jigs, the Lindy Hop, jitterbug and a convulsive conga line, it’s got pizzazz to please and major moxie. An unalloyed Goodman Theatre triumph, Mary Zimmerman’s rightly wonderful revival of this jazz jewel is the destination visit to downtown Chicago. (It should also come full circle and return to sender, a.k.a. New York City…)

Erica Stephan (Ensemble), James Earl Jones II (Speedy Valenti) and Tiffany Krause (Ensemble) in Wonderful Town.

Moving the action from the Depression to the Beatnik era of Greenwich Village (the time of the show’s origin), Zimmerman retroactively contemporizes the adventures of Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, sisters from Columbus, Ohio. Full of hope that defies homesickness, wide-eyed and open-hearted, these very different siblings get caught up in the churning changes of lower Manhattan.  (True to Zimmerman’s zest for altering scale, the magical island is playfully depicted with pop-up pop art, stylized miniature skyscrapers, cars, trains and planes by set designer Todd Rosenthal.)

Bri Sudia (Ruth) sings “Swing” along with ensemble members in Wonderful Town.

The stalwart but financially-challenged sisters end up in a cockroach-ridden garden apartment. (Do we ever see this uncredited insect!) Their grungy hole of a hangout is regularly rocked by subway construction blasts and repeatedly invaded by horny outsiders looking for the previous tenant, goodtime girl Violet (Christine Hall). No wonder the “fish-out-of-water” girls lament, “Why did we ever leave Ohio?”

Karl Sean Hamilton (Robert Baker) sings “What A Waste” along with ensemble members James Earl Jones II, Jeff Parker, George Andrew Wolff, Karl Sean Hamilton, Kent M. Lewis and Russell Mernagh in Wonderful Town.

They pluckily persevere. Pretty and popular Eileen (perky Laura Molina) and plain but brainy Ruth (Bri Sudia, comically worthy to succeed Rosalind Russell) meet many “interesting people on Christopher Street,” as the exuberant opener declares. There’s colorful Greek landlord Appopolous (Matt DeCaro), a modernist painter who’s fleecing them in their fleabag. Sprightly spark plugs, their neighbors are a former college gridiron star Wreck (Jordan Brown), dumb as a rock but he could “pass that football!,” and his demure darling Helen (Kristin Villaneuva), as well as Helen’s disapproving snobbish mom (Amy J. Carle).

Bri Sudia (Ruth) sings “Swing” along with ensemble members in Wonderful Town.

Effervescent Eileen makes instant conquests, like a step-dancing police precinct in the pseudo-Irish production number “My Darlin’ Eileen.” She also attracts a dweebish Walgreen’s manager Frank Lippencott (Wade Elkins) and horndog editor Chick Clark (Steven Strafford): In order to get rid of the protective sis, the latter literary sleazebag sends Ruth off on a phony assignment to interview Brazilian sailors (“Conga!,” the delirious first-act finale). Despite past romantic fiascoes (“One Hundred Easy Ways/To Lose A Man”), intrepid Ruth persists: While shopping around her Hemingway-like stories (here delightfully dramatized), the smart cookie finds love along with a publisher in nice-guy Robert Baker (Karl Hamilton). The ending is happy.

Lainie Sakakura (Ensemble), Lauren Molina (Eileen) and ensemble members Erica Stephan, Ian Saunders and Kent M. Lewis in Wonderful Town,

The Sherwoods’s very representative “coming of age” shenanigans are a perfect excuse for Zimmerman’s patented storybook spectacle. There’s a Bohemian breakout in “Swing!”, Ruth’s hilariously improvised routine as a desperate barker for the Village Vortex nightclub, the sister’s rampaging rouser “The Wrong Note Rag,” choreographed to big-band glory by Alex Sanchez, and a jazz ballet “Conquering New York” worthy of Bernstein’s Fancy Free, an earlier salute to the city that made him great.

Bri Sudia (Ruth) and Lauren Molina (Eileen). (Pictured Left to Right) ensemble members Kristin Villanueva, Jordan Brown, George Andrew Wolff, Jody Reynard, Jeff Parker, Ian Saunders, Lainie Sakakura, Wade Elkins and Mark David Kaplan in Wonderful Town

Kudos in all directions: There’s enough heart and joy in half of Wonderful Town to fuel a dozen of 2016’s shallow shows. Zimmerman finds it all, thanks also to Ana Kuzmanic’s class- conscious Eisenhower Era frippery, TJ Gerckens’ primary-colored happy lighting, and an ensemble ripe to conquer Chicago as much as New York. Bernstein’s evergreen score reinvents hope and youth in exquisite songs like “A Little Bit in Love,” “What a Waste,” “It’s Love,” “A Quiet Girl,” and “Conversation Piece,” a comedy masterpiece depicting some very boring chitchat.

A hundred “origin tales” get represented in the Sherwood sisters’s taking of Manhattan. This valentine to a golden age proves a show-stopper from start to finish. Bursting and blooming, Bernstein is back!

(A personal note: Over 50 years ago, I played Lonigan the cop in a Hinsdale High School production–and, well, Wonderful Town is, yes, wonderful within and without. It’s worth waiting half a century to feel so young again!)

photos by Liz Lauren

Wonderful Town
Goodman Theatre
Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
ends on October 23, 2016
for tickets, call 312.443.3800 or visit Goodman Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nikki Smith September 21, 2016 at 10:03 am

Wonderful review; it’s almost as much fun as the show. I wish I could afford to see it again — and again.


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