Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Wonderful Town
Goodman Theatre
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule


Bri Sudia, Lauren Molina and Cast
Photo by Liz Lauren
Many may have forgotten that the tales of Ruth McKenney and her sister Eileen were a hot property for some 25 years, beginning with McKenney's original stories published in The New Yorker in the late 1930s and compiled in book form as "My Sister Eileen" in 1938. In the 1940s, My Sister Eileen became a long-running Broadway play, a radio play, and a feature film. It was reworked in the 1950s first as Wonderful Town, a stage musical by the play's authors Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and then a movie musical (again, called My Sister Eileen) with a completely different score (by Jule Styne and Leo Robin). Finally, it was a TV series of the 1960-61 season starring Elaine Stritch as Ruth.

All of this is to say that for a generation—parts of two generations, probably—Sherwood's romanticized view of her and her sister's move from Ohio to Greenwich Village in New York City was probably the defining fantasy of smaller city residents going to the Big Apple to follow their dreams. In the various incarnations of the stories, Ruth and her younger, prettier sister Eileen move from Columbus, Ohio (not such a small town, even in the 1930s), without a place to live. They stumble across a Greenwich Village basement apartment and agree to the exorbitant rent of $65 a month, payable to their conniving landlord Mr. Appopolous. Their neighbors are artists and other eccentrics, and though more avant-garde than Ruth or Eileen, in many ways kindred spirits to the Ohio girls hoping to become a writer and actress, respectively. The sisters ultimately find both love and professional success in the city.

As someone who still fancies himself something of an overaged kid still hoping to make it in the big city (though New York seems no longer in the cards), the fantasy of Ruth and Eileen still has appeal to me. And while the McKenney stories have always been told as comedy, they have generally been grounded in reality enough to make one believe the fantasy could be real. This is not director Mary Zimmerman's take on Wonderful Town. Hers is a rather broadly comic vision, with the New York setting represented by movable cutouts of skyscrapers in Todd Rosenthal's set, with paper airplanes (that inexplicably but probably intentionally slow down and stop) flying above on wires, and life-sized actors riding around on tiny cutouts of cars. Ms. Zimmerman seems to be telling us that none of this is reality, and not to worry what rents really are in the Village these days or that a present day Ruth and Eileen would more likely be living somewhere like Avenue Q than Christopher Street. While the more traditional approach has more appeal to me than Zimmerman's stylized, ironic take, her concept works on its own terms, losing none of the humor even if it sacrifices some of the heart.

Zimmerman has assembled a truly top-notch cast—mostly local—who handle both the musical and comedic demands with ease. Bri Sudia is the wisecracking Ruth, filling the shoes of her predecessors in the role like Rosalind Russell and Stritch with perfect timing and self-deprecation. Broadway's Lauren Molina has been brought in to play Eileen and she shows comic chops as the pretty but unassuming aspiring actress who wins over all she meets. Chicago's Karl Hamilton is a natural as the quintessential nice guy Bob Baker. His vocals are gorgeous and he absolutely kills on his solo "A Quiet Girl." There are strong supporting performances from the well-built Jordan Brown as Wreck, James Earl Jones II as Valenti, Kristin Villanueva as Wreck's wife Helen, Matt DeCaro as Appopolous, and Wade Elkins as the Walgreen's clerk Frank Lippincott.

This Wonderful Town also sacrifices none of the quality of Bernstein's music. A 17-piece orchestra, though unseen, sounds full and satisfying. As in his earlier On the Town, the then-aspiring classical composer Bernstein wrote songs that were more ambitious than mere show tunes, though many of them work on that level—like the classic comedy duet "Ohio," Bob and Ruth's duet "It's Love," and the infectious "Conga." He also got experimental with "Pass the Football"'s wide melodic leaps and the dissonance of "One Note Rag." Music Director Doug Peck and conductor Heather Boehm treat the score like the important work of a major composer that it is.

In a time when the fantasy of New York life for the young is more like Lena Dunham's TV series Girls than My Sister Eileen, one can't fault Zimmerman for setting Wonderful Town in some goofy caricature of New York. I'd still rather spend time in the village during the 1940s, the years Bernstein and Adolph Green lived there, hanging out with the likes of Jerome Robbins and other greats or soon-to-be greats. But the Goodman production is still a quality production that's faithful to the score and intent of the piece.

Wonderful Town will play the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, through October 23, 2016. For ticket information visit www.goodmantheatre.org or call 312-443-3800.


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