COLUMBUS, OHIO is Babbity, stuffy, provincial--no place for would-be artists and full-time innocents like Ruth and Eileen Sherwood. Once ensconced in a basement flat in Greenwich Village, the two sisters--one a stereotypically unattractive, intellectual type, the other a charmingly naive blonde whose every smile fells hordes of men--are all set to have their innocence dispelled and their artistic dreams realized. Along the way, however, they must pay a price in the coinage of musical comedy by exchanging cute quips with picturesque minor characters, whirling across the stage in elaborately choreographed dance numbers and belting out songs of unrequited and triumphant love.
In Wonderful Town, the price is not too high to pay. Although its plot is formulaic and its ending pat, the Loeb's latest offering boasts a melodic Leonard Bernstein score, an occasionally witty book and, most importantly, the comic and musical talents of Rhonda Lee Goldenberg and Susan Terry, who look and sound just right as the two sisters.
Wonderful Town is a curious amalgam. Set in the late 1930s, the show is Bernstein's 1953 adaption of a 1941 hit play that was in turn partially based on Ruth McKinney's book My Sister Eileen. Not too surprisingly, the final product of these transmutations conforms far less to the original--from which it draws only its setting, the two principals and one or two incidents--than to the conventions of musical comedy.
Like others of its genre, the show stands or falls largely on the basis of its music. Leonard Bernstein's score is characterized by its eclecticism; complementing the melancholy strains of "Ohio" and the lyricism of "It's Love" are the Latin American rhythms of "Conga," the Irish jig "My Darlin' Eileen" and the jazzy "Swing." While Wonderful Town is no West Side Story, its finest tunes, like "Ohio" and It's Love," are definitely hummable.
Less impressive are the Adolph Green and Betty Comden Iyrics, which are more often predictable than clever. The two lyricists do sometimes scale the heights of wit, as in Ruth's comic lament "A Sure Way to Lose a Man (One Hundred Easy Ways)" in which she sings
Just show him where his grammar errs
And mark your towels "Hers" and "Hers."
Comden, Green and Bernstein have composed no real show-stoppers; but the score of Wonderful Town is, on the whole, eminently respectable.
WHAT LIFTS this production above the level of mere respectability, however, are the deft performances of Terry and Goldenberg in the main roles. Terry plays Ruth--the dumpy, in tellectual brunette--with zest and comic flair, displaying the versatility of a comedienne in her rendering of numbers like "Ruth's Story Vignettes," in which she portrays the various repressed heroines of her own short stories. Her dramatic contralto invests "A Sure Way"--the still apt lament of the overly intelligent and therefore "unfeminine" woman--with just the right touch of cynicism.
As the fair-haired Eileen, Goldenberg is sweet without being cloying. Clad in dainty, full-skirted dresses that contrast with her sister's more careerish two-piece outfits, she sings in a lilting soprano and radiates a natural charm that prevents her from being too far overshadowed by Terry's necessarily more pungent characterization of Ruth.
To back up his leads, director Andy Cadiff has assembled a cast remarkably free of weak spots. Toby Webb as Baker, the editor who initially rejects Ruth's work, sings in a rich baritone, while P.D. Seltzer manages to wring more than a few laughs from his role as the weasely landlord of Christopher Street. Best of all is Paul Jackel's portrayal of Wreck, the football star from Trenton Tech. Highly energetic, Jackel exhibits superb comic timing and bounces around the stage with the ease of a pro.
Cadiff's production is enlivened by Gary S. Gluck's striking art deco sets and generally fine choreography. Especially well done are large chorus numbers like "My Darlin' Eileen"--which features the rich harmonizing of a strong male chorus, ably performing Irish jig steps--and "Swing," a '30s number in which black-skirted and leotarded dancers slink their way across the stage.
These assets compensate amply for the production's main problem--a sometimes dated book by Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields. Replete with references to people like Felix Frankfurter and Charles C. Dawes and now-defunct New Deal agencies like the NRA, Wonderful Town is in some ways a period piece. Fortunately, most of the play's humor derives from classic comic situations--the intelligent girl as social misfit, the pretty girl surrounded by suitors trying to out do each other to win her favor. Some of the Chodorov and Fields jokes are pretty unfunny now--Ruth is asked twice whether she strips, because "We're always looking for new faces"--but then again, they probably weren't very funny to begin with.
One directorial shortcoming that stems in part from the datedness of musical comedy conventions themselves is the roughness of transitions between comic and serious moments. An index of Cadiff's failure to effect these transitions is the laughter with which the audience greets the opening of "Ohio"--the sisters' supposedly poignant questioning of their wisdom in leaving home.
Ruth and Eileen had to leave. Before innocence is invaded by experience, before artistic aspirations become careers, the sisters must troop through their musical paces in company with the rest of Cadiff's talented cast. It's all worth it, though. In the end, their not staying home becomes reason enough for you not to either.
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