Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Juicy Ode to the Big Apple: Mary Zimmerman's Take on 'Wonderful Town' Proves Quite Refreshing -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Wonderful Town
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 23

Wonderful Town was originally scheduled to end Goodman Theatre's 2015-16 subscription season rather than begin the 2016-17 slate.

I was ticketed to see it on a Sunday evening in July, but a pre-Broadway World Premiere of War Paint came about as a special presentation in Goodman's Albert Theatre and pushed the 1953 Tony winner a couple months down the road.

Had I enjoyed a midsummer's night with Leonard Bernstein's delightfully diverse score--with lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green--well-rendered by an 18-member orchestra, excellent cast and an imaginative take by director Mary Zimmerman, I'd have to assume I would have liked it just as much as I did this past Sunday afternoon.

But the postponement worked out well on multiple levels, including my very much valuing the chance to see Broadway legends Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole in the good-but-needing-refinements War Paint.

Having switched to Sunday matinees for the new subscription season, I was able to see Wonderful Town--a show based in and largely celebrating New York City--on a beautiful day in Chicago, and appreciate how a classic ode to the Big Apple compared and contrasted with a more recent one, In the Heights.

Now perhaps billboarded as "Lin-Manuel Miranda's first musical," prior to the phenomenon that Hamilton has become, In the Heights won the Best New Musical Tony Award in 2008--I saw it on Broadway that year--and is now being produced locally by Chicago's fine Porchlight Music Theatre.

I saw it on Friday and, as my review conveys, greatly enjoyed it--both the original source material anew and Porchlight's excellent rendition.

And the juxtaposition of In the Heights with Wonderful Town on my theatrical calendar made for a rather illuminating perspective from which to better appreciate both shows. (I'm also ticketed to see Hamilton for the first time on October 4 at Chicago's PrivateBank Theatre.)

While Miranda--who wrote the music & lyrics for both In the Heights and Hamilton--deserves heaps of praise for fusing contemporary sounds (rap/hip-hop, pop and more) into the traditional Broadway milieu, the brilliant brassiness of Bernstein's Wonderful Town score, exquisitely executed by Goodman's largest-ever orchestra, bespoke a similarly adventurous approach and visionary musical melange.

In 2007, I had seen a touring production of Wonderful Town based on a Broadway revival--in Champaign, Illinois; it never played Chicago--and though I can't recall much about it, my database rating of 7/10 for both the content and performance would seem to corroborate my current feeling about the show's book (by Joseph A. Fields and Chodorov) being somewhat creaky.

Though I was much more enamored with the whole affair this time around--Zimmerman, set designer Todd Rosenthal and costume designer Ana Kuzmanic merit great commendation for an inspired vibrancy that greatly counteracts inherent datedness--occasional stalls and shortcomings in the narrative keep this from being a full @@@@@ review (though it wouldn't be unreasonable).

But, especially for those who love classic musicals, this is a rather robust recommendation, as musically, visually, humorously and with terrific performances, this Wonderful Town well merits encountering and exploring.

Complemented by Kuzmanic's colorful costumes, Rosenthal's strikingly imaginative set--featuring 2-dimensional Manhattan buildings  moved about by cast members and a basement apartment that brilliantly ascends to center stage--makes the show wonderful to behold from the get-go.

Quirky gags at the shrewd hand of Zimmerman--most demonstrably a human-sized cockroach--only add to the fun.

Based on short stories by Ruth McKenney originally published in the New Yorker and compiled in a 1938 book called My Sister Eileen, the musical initially set in the 1930s but now updated to the '50s focuses around sisters named Ruth and Eileen--surname fictionalized to Sherwood--who have just moved to New York City from Columbus, Ohio.

Ruth, played perfectly by Bri Sudia, who I've liked in supporting roles and well-justifies the leap to a high-profile lead, is a writer; Eileen, a delightful Lauren Molina, who brings Broadway credits and was in Goodman's 2010 Zimmerman-helmed production of Bernstein's Candide, a wanna-be actress.

Landing in Greenwich Village, whose somewhat archaic Bohemian archetypes are depicted in the dynamic opening number, "Christopher Street," the sisters find an apartment rather quickly, but encounter some hardships, such as the giant cockroach and occupational roadblocks.

But they attract a variety of friends and would-be paramours, such as football-playing Wreck (Jordan Brown), artist/landlord Appopoulos (Matt DeCaro), newspapermen Robert Baker (Karl Hamilton), Chick Clark (Steven Stratford), Walgreens worker Frank Lippincott (Wade Elkins) and assorted others, including a bunch of Brazilian sailors.

The storyline involves various interactions, situations, misunderstandings and the sisters' acclimation to the Big Apple, but this is a musical in which the music is the main driving force (and raison d'ĂȘtre, especially on a Chicago stage in 2016).

Few of the songs in Wonderful Town became staples on par with those from Bernstein's next muscial, West Side Story, but most are delightful, including "Ohio," "One Hundred Easy Ways"--which Sudia delivers superbly--"A Little Bit in Love," "Conga," "My Darlin' Eileen," "It's Love" and "The Wrong Note Rag."

Along with the demonstrably strong direction, scenery, costumes and performances noted above, the choreography by Alex Sanchez is also quite good, and the singing univerally strong.

There are numerous magnficent shows in the musical theater pantheon, and while I'm not convinced Wonderful Town ranks with the very best, Goodman's rendition is one that considerably elevates my regard for it.

It's pretty easy to imagine that most will have wonderful time at Wonderful Town, and in helping me better appreciate what Leonard Bernstein and pals brought to the Broadway table long before Lin-Manuel Miranda re-set it, I found this New York musical adventure--in the wonderful theater community of Chicago--all the more rewarding.

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