(June 30, 2008) One of the great American musicals, Wonderful Town, is playing at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), and it is pure pleasure. This musical has an intelligent, heartfelt script and genuinely appealing characters, and it is perfectly suited for a repertory company whose members act as well as they sing and dance.
Emsworth previews the shows on the 2009 Shaw Festival playbill at this post.
Wonderful Town takes us to Greenwich Village, 1935, where Ruth Sherwood and her younger sister Eileen have just arrived from small-town Ohio to seek their fortunes — Ruth as a writer, Eileen as a singer and actress. Fresh off the train, they wander into lively, colorful Christopher Street, take a noisy basement apartment (a new subway is being blasted down below), meet the neighbors, and start looking for work.
Will the clever Ruth (Lisa Horner) learn how to write in her own voice? Will she ever sell her stories? Will Ruth (dateless back in Ohio) find love in Manhattan? If I had any quarrel with the casting of Wonderful Town, it would be with the director’s futile attempt to pass off the appealing, long-legged Lisa Horner as an old maid. Her sassy number “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man” is one of the many highlights of this show.
And will anyone ever give Ruth’s pretty, talented sister Eileen (Chilina Kennedy) a job? Will the girls be able to pay the rent? What if they fall for the same young man? Will anything in this bohemia ever shock these small-town girls? We never worry for long.
I was hooked from the opening scene, with its athletic, big-production number “Christopher Street.” One could see the show a dozen times without catching all the clever business concocted by director Roger Hodgman and choreographer Jane Johanson.
I had not seen Wonderful Town before, and I wasn’t aware of all the treasures in its score. Leonard Bernstein’s songs (with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green) are superb, even if they are not as well known as those in some of the other great Broadway musicals. The songs of Wonderful Town are nicely integrated into the storyline, especially Ruth and Eileen’s hilarious, deadpan duet, “Ohio” (the voices of the homesick sisters blend beautifully), and the riotous “My Darling Eileen,” set in the Village’s police station and sung by an barbershop quartet of Irish cops that is led by the Shaw Festival’s rubber-limbed William Vickers as Officer Lonigan.
As Eileen, Ms. Kennedy gives an expressive rendition of the show’s graceful romantic standard, “A Little Bit in Love.” My own favorite is the edgy and infectious “The Wrong Note Rag,” a piece whose music is even wittier than its lyrics.
Many will feel differently, but I prefer Wonderful Town to the show that Bernstein composed about four years later with Stephen Sondheim as lyricist. Of course, the music of West Side Story is peerless, with standards like “Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “Maria” and “Somewhere.” But the good humor and real-life dilemmas of Wonderful Town speak to me more than the cartoonish characters and dramatic posturing of West Side Story.
This slice of Americana reminds us of when we were young and free to take chances and take on madcap adventures and go on wild-goose chases. The inhabitants of Christopher Street are old friends. Ruth and Eileen weren’t strangers to me; in them I recognized my own bright, clear-eyed, generous, independent-minded old-maid aunt and her devoted younger sister. The younger sister was my mother, who left Kansas in the throes of the Depression to try her luck in the east. Like Eileen, my mother found first a career, and then a husband, in the big city. My aunt never did marry.
Wonderful Town was based on the autobiographical best-seller My Sister Eileen, a collection of stories by Ruth McKenney, from the humor genre that included books like Clarence Day’s Life With Father, Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth’s Cheaper by the Dozen, and William Saroyan’s timeless The Human Comedy.
The Shaw Festival’s 2008 production of Terence Rattigan’s outstanding 1939 play After the Dance is reviewed in this post.