Originally created 11/25/03

'Wonderful Town' celebrates making it in New York



NEW YORK -- It's practically a lost art these days on Broadway. We're talking honest-to-goodness musical comedy: the marriage of music and mirth, an artful blend of laughter and song.

But arriving just in time to cheer us during this doleful fall season is a buoyant revival of "Wonderful Town," the Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green musical.

This production, which opened Sunday at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, may be old-fashioned, but it's not stuck in the mud. How could it be, what with Bernstein's brash, breezy music, melodies that delightfully move from swing to jazz to Latin to Irish folk to wistful ballads. And then there are those witty Comden and Green lyrics, which may suffer a bit from a loss of topicality but still are models of literate rhyme.

"Wonderful Town' was born in 1953 as a vehicle for the considerable talents of movie star Rosalind Russell. Fifty years later, it is a vehicle for the equally gifted Donna Murphy, a two-time Tony Award winner who could pick up a third next June for her sassy, snappy work here.

Murphy portrays Ruth Sherwood, one of two sisters from Columbus, Ohio, who arrive in 1930s New York to make it big - Ruth as a writer and her younger sibling, Eileen, as an actress. Ruth is smart, pragmatic and sharp-tongued; Eileen is pretty and disarming. Guess which one always gets her man?

The musical's episodic book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, adapted from their hit play "My Sister Eileen," has been tweaked by playwright David Ives. Yet the jokes are still plentiful, and the cast knows its way around every laugh line.

Watch Murphy work through the ditty "One Hundred Easy Ways (To Lose a Man)" and you'll know what impeccable comic timing is. The actress would have been perfect in those screwball film comedies of the 1930s. Her effortless delivery is dry, sardonic and hilarious.

Jennifer Westfeldt makes an appealing, sweet-tempered Eileen, and she finds the humor in this lovely lass, one who matter-of-factly accepts the adulation of every man in sight.

The two sisters find refuge in an idealized Greenwich Village, a bohemian never-never land where poets, painters, actors and writers coexist with cranky, if lovable landlords, eccentric neighbors, hardworking ladies of the night and helpful policemen, who are all Irish, of course.

In 2000, director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall oversaw an earlier edition of "Wonderful Town" at City Center's "Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert." Murphy also starred in that production.

So did a spiffy, onstage orchestra conducted by Rob Fisher, who is on the podium here, too. And the orchestra is onstage again at the Hirschfeld, 24 musicians who more than do justice to Bernstein's great music. They sit at the back of the playing area, which means all the action occurs right down front.

That's not as confining as it might seem, thanks to Marshall's astute direction. Designer John Lee Beatty drops in skeleton flats that suggest, among other things, the sisters' basement apartment, the sidewalk of fabled Christopher Street, a police station and a Village night spot.

Marshall's choreography is as lively as the score, especially her work for a riotous conga number, a jazzy ballet at the Village Vortex and the hijinks that spark the show's zesty finale, "The Wrong Note Rag."

The director has cast the smaller roles with care. Gregg Edelman is a strong-voiced suitor for Ruth, while there are fine comic turns by Peter Benson as a giddy drugstore soda jerk, Michael McGrath as a pugnacious newspaper reporter, David Margulies as that opportunistic landlord and Raymond Jaramillo McLeod as a would-be football player stranded out of season.

There is an innocence about "Wonderful Town," which, at its core, celebrates those newcomers trying to find their way in a tough New York. But it's an innocence born of affection - and crafted with such skill that this "Wonderful Town" is impossible to resist.