From autobiographical short story collection to play to movie to Broadway musical to musical movie (but with different songs) to TV series. Few musical comedies have had as many incarnations as 1953’s Wonderful Town, and though Broadway revived it in 2003, this Golden Era hit has faded a bit too much into obscurity to join perennial 1950s favorites like Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game onto any major theater’s annual season—making it a perfect choice for Musical Theatre Guild to revive for one night only as the first of their 2013-2014 “concert staged reading” treats.
Under Lewis Wilkenfeld’s inspired direction, Lowe Taylor gives a bona fide star performance as Ohio-to-Greenwich Village transplant Ruth Sherwood, the role made famous on film and in Wonderful Town’s original Broadway production by Rosalind “Auntie Mame” Russell. Fresh on the heels of her Ovation-nominated supporting turn as Paulette in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s Legally Blonde, the sensational Taylor’s sassy, wise-cracking Ruth is the very best reason some big theater company ought to consider giving Wonderful Town a fully-staged production.
The names Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green are three more good reasons, and though the songwriting team’s score for Wonderful Town remains overshadowed by their collaboration in On The Town, Taylor showcases like “One Hundred Easy Ways” and “Ohio,” the latter duetted with soprano star Kristi Holden as Ruth’s sister Eileen, are gems that deserve to be heard again, as does Holden’s exquisite “A Little Bit In Love.”
Real-life Ruth McKenney based her My Sister Eileen stories on adventures shared with her prettier, more popular younger sister, first in their native Ohio, and later on, in the bohemian Greenwich Village of the 1930s.
Wonderful Town (book by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov) skips over the Ohio stuff to open with a walk down “Christopher Street” (tour-guided by narrator David Zack) that introduces us to various Village denizens—an artist and his model, a hooker and her clients, a pro football player and his dumb blonde girlfriend, and more, and makes for the first of at least four major dance sequences choreographed by the brilliant Lee Martino and performed to perfection by an ensemble given about half-an-hour to learn each of them. (Talk about fast studies!)
It doesn’t take long after this intro for would-be writer Ruth and Broadway hopeful Eileen to have found a basement apartment owned and managed by Greek painter Appopolous (Roy Leake, Jr.) and met the aforementioned hooker Violet (Jennifer Malenke), big palooka quarterback Wreck (Matt Merchant), his ditzy girlfriend Helen (Ashley Fox Linton) and her battleaxe mother Mrs. Wade (Pamela Hamill), Irish police officer Lannigan (David Holmes), cool cat nightclub owner Speedy Valenti (Ron Christopher Jones), and a trio of handsome gents each with an eye for Eileen: nerdy Walgreens manager Frank (Jeffrey Scott Parsons), slick newspaperman Chick (Will Collyer), and debonair Manhatter Magazine editor Bob (Damon Kirsche). (It’s a running gag that everyone of the male persuasion, and I mean everyone, falls for Eileen at first sight while giving Ruth hardly a second glance.)
Unfolding as a series of comic vignettes, Wonderful Town features one tuneful song showcase after another. Merchant’s dumb athlete relates his one great talent in “Pass The Football,” Bob’s “A Quiet Girl” and “It’s Love” show off Kirsche’s velvet pipes, the latter duetted with the crystal-voiced Holden, and “One Hundred Easy Ways,” Ruth’s showstopping single gal’s lament, features a hilarious Taylor relating only the first few of Ruth’s patented “ways to lose a man.”
And then there are the production numbers, which give Martino and the supremely talented Wonderful Town ensemble (Eydie Alyson, Keith A. Bearden, Jules Chavarria, Justin Jones, Mark C. Reis, Daniel Switzer, Tory Trowbridge and various previously mentioned cast members) to show off some fancy footwork, most particularly in the infectiously lively “Conga,” the high-energy visit to Club Vortex in “Swing,” and the equally swinging Ruth-and-Eileen-led “Wrong Note Rag.”
In addition to Taylor’s star turn and Holden’s winning girl-next-door support, MTG’s Wonderful Town is filled with one gem of a performance after another by Collyer, Hamill, Holmes, Leake, Linton, Malenke, and Zack, each of them absolutely splendid, as are Alyson, Bearden, Chavarria, Jones, Reis, Switzer, and Trowbridge. Special snaps are due a pair of performances that each earn several bursts of spontaneous applause—by Parsons, who reinvents the stock nerd character to outrageous perfection and does one of the funniest pratfalls ever, and by Jones, who can dance his way across a stage like nobody’s business. Merchant’s not-so-dumb Wreck shines too in “Pass The Football,” and there’s no more dashing or gorgeously voiced romantic lead than Kirsche.
Dean Mora provides topnotch musical direction and conducts and plays keyboards in the excellent five-piece orchestra—Chris Tedesco on trumpet, Geoff Nudell on reeds, Jim Garafalo on bass, and Sam Webster on drums.
A bevy of colorful costumes by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg and AJS Costumes (assisted by Angela Fong) are a mix of ‘30s and ‘40s styles, as are the women’s assorted hairdos. (Taylor’s do in particular is 1940s fabulous.) Kudos too to lighting designer Sean McGarry.
Erik McEwen is production coordinator.
Allie Roy is production stage manager, Art Brickman is production manager, and Stacey Cortez and Kirsten Shook are assistant stage managers.
Last but not least, it should be mentioned that Musical Theatre Guild has moved from Mondays at the Alex in Glendale to Sundays at Santa Monica’s brand new Moss Theater, a more intimate space that gives everyone in the audience an up-close-and-personal experience.
Sadly, there will be no second chance to catch Lowe Taylor in Wonderful Town, all the more reason for musical theater lovers to subscribe to the rest of the MTG season: the West Coast Premiere of 2011’s much acclaimed Death Takes A Holiday, the camp cult hit Ruthless The Musical, and the brilliant City Of Angels. I plan on missing not a one.
The Ann and Jerry Moss Theater, 3131 Olympic Blvd. Santa Monica.
November 17, 2013
Photos: Alan Weston