Corrections or additions?
These reviews by Simon Saltzman and Barbara Fox were prepared for
the February 4, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights
Review: ‘Wonderful Town’
Broadway is sparked with one terrific revival of a 51-year-old stage
musical and a charming new musical based on a 67-year-old musical
film. They are "Wonderful Town" and "Never Gonna Dance," respectively.
And both offer delightful musical entertainment.
Broadway had to wait more than three years to see Tony Award-winner
(for both "Passion" and "The King and I") Donna Murphy as Ruth in
"Wonderful Town." Hers is the dazzling performance that had audiences
cheering at the City Center Encore Series. Ruth is the role that once
gave Rosalind Russell’s career a huge boost (despite the fact that she
wasn’t much of singer). Murphy is not only a terrific singer, but she
doesn’t miss one single – mostly sardonic – comic beat.
Just as "Chicago" was lifted from the same, barebones City Center
series (five performances only) and planted firmly on Broadway,
"Wonderful Town" has followed the same route and is also notable for
its minimalist staging. But the producers have given the 1953 musical
by Leonard Bernstein (music), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics),
Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov (book), just enough additional
trappings to turn the show into a smart and stylish Broadway
production. The musical is based on the play "My Sister Eileen," by
Fields and Chodorov, and the short stories by Ruth McKenney.
Under the direction of Kathleen Marshall (also the choreographer),
"Wonderful Town" has evolved from City Center into a fully-designed
show. Led by Rob Fisher, 26 musicians (a generous number you don’t see
very often on Broadway) are perched right up on the stage for all to
see and hear. It’s a pleasure to experience the full glory of Don
Walker’s original orchestrations, especially since we have been
getting accustomed to the sound of electronic keyboards and only a
handful of musicians sunk in the pit. This doesn’t mean that scenery
(handsomely designed by John Lee Beatty) is eliminated, but rather
that it is created to be just delicately indicative as sets gracefully
fly up and down and glide back and forth in front of the musicians.
If Bernstein’s vibrant score suggests the energy and pulse of New York
like no other (with the exception of his previous show "On The Town"),
"Wonderful Town" wholeheartedly embraces the score while making you
feel good about its denizens, and particularly Ruth Sherwood (Murphy)
and her sister Eileen (Jennifer Westfeldt), who remain now and forever
rapturously concerned with finding a meal and a male.
"Why-o, why-o, Why-o, why did I ever leave Ohio?" the two
Midwesterners sing as they try to adjust to their basement apartment
on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. It’s 1935 and the
neighborhood is enlivened by Bohemian artists, dancers, and writers,
all of whom are sent whirling through Marshall’s witty, although
understandably confined, patterns. Best of all is the "Conga," in
which Ruth leads a group of Brazilian sailors through the streets. At
the performance I attended, audiences members were moved to conga as
they exited up the aisle.
Notwithstanding the naivete of the two principal characters, or the
plot that follows the distinct and true path from loneliness and
despair to success and love, "Wonderful Town" is nothing more than a
series of humorously conceived misadventures following Ruth’s attempt
to get a job as a writer and Eileen’s flirtations while looking work
in the theater. Those who saw Edie Adams as the unforgettably demure
and sparkling Eileen in the original production may find Westfeldt, in
her Broadway debut, lacking a bit of warmth. Yet she comes through
with a bright and winning performance and sings the plaintive "A
Little Bit in Love" beautifully.
There is excellent support from Gregg Edelman, as the all-business
editor who finally melts, Nancy Anderson and Raymond Jarmillo McLeous
as the unmarried (shocking at the time) couple living in the next
apartment, David Margulies as the landlord cum artist, and Peter
Benson as the come-a-courting Woolworth’s soda jerk. Despite a score
that includes "The Wrong Note Rag," there is not one wrong note in
this entire show. HHH
– Simon Saltzman
Wonderful Town, Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 West 45th Street, New York.
Tele-Charge, 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.
Just as "Wonderful Town" fantasizes about life in the big city during
the mid-1930s, so does a new musical "Never Gonna Dance," that recalls
those films and shows about talented hoofers from Hicksville who came
to New York looking for romance, happiness, and a good hard floor to
tap dance on, all the while finding time to sing wonderful songs and
make it big before the finale. "Never Gonna Dance" is based on the
Fred Astaire & Ginger Rodgers 1937 film musical "Swing Time." It
boasts a melodic score with more than its share of classic standards
by Jerome Kern taken from the film as well as from other Kern scores.
The show has the advantage of having two young performers – Noah Racey
and Nancy Lemenager – coming as close as possible to emulating the
Astaire/Rodgers style. Choreographer Jerry Mitchell has devised some
intricate and lengthy original dance numbers (without mimicking the
Astaire/Rodgers routines) designed to show off the tall and slim
Racey’s graceful skill and technique, as poor, born-to-dance Lucky
Garnett. Lemenager is no sassy perky Rodgers, and her character as
rewritten is a bit bland, but she holds her own sweetly in this
singing and dancing partnership.
The silliness of the plot hardly matters. Garnett’s wedding to a
wealthy Pennsylvania socialite is stopped by her father until Lucky
finds a real job in the city and earns $25,000. Shades of "The Red
Shoes," Garnett can’t seem to stop dancing since everything in the
city has a beat. Sparks fly when he meets Penny (Lemenager), a dance
instructor, and promptly decides not to pursue the $25,000. But Lucky
is lucky with money. This, despite the fact that his new friend
Morgenthal (Peter Gerety), a former stockbroker now a tramp, is
recklessly investing Lucky’s money. Lucy and Penny are soon rehearsing
for an amateur dance contest and you can guess where that leads.
Karen Ziemba provides real star quality and a vivid personality in her
supporting role as Mabel, Penny’s wise-cracking pal. Peter Bartlett
gets plenty of laughs as Pangborn, Penny’s flamboyant boss. Even if
the magic created by Astaire and Rodgers cannot be duplicated, the
book by Jeffrey Hatcher is remarkably true in spirit to the brittle
and bracing humor that sparked the team’s films. Michael Grief’s
direction is on target as are the retro modern settings by Robin
Wagner and the shimmering costumes by William Ivey Long. Dancing its
way from Grand Central Station to the top of an unfinished skyscraper
to such songs as "The Song is You," "I’ll Be Hard to Handle," "The Way
You Look Tonight" and "I Won’t Dance," "Never Gonna Dance" comes very
close to being a perfect Valentine. HHH
– Simon Saltzman
Never Gonna Dance, Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street, New York.
Tele-Charge, 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200. Closes February 15.
Unless otherwise noted, all Broadway reservations can be made through
Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200. For TicketMaster listings
call 800-755-4000 or 212-307-4100.
Choreographer Susan Stroman’s Broadway hit "Contact" delivered more
dancing and fewer words than one would expect on Broadway; it was a
groundbreaking success and a Tony winner. Now her evening-length
ballet, "Double Feature," which premiered at the New York State
Theater last weekend, has more words and less dancing than is usual
for the New York City Ballet, but it is an equal success. To Stroman’s
dance drama, the NYCB dancers add socko technique, and fabulous
production values. Commissioned by NYCB as part of its year-long
celebration of the centennial of George Balanchine’s birth, "Double
Feature" plays Wednesday and Thursday, February 4 and 5, at 8 p.m.
Tickets are scarce, but call 212-307-4100.
Stroman used Berlin’s tunes (from "Alexander’s Ragtime Band" to "How
Deep is the Ocean") for a three-hanky melodrama, the Cinderella story
told silent movie style, with captions, mime, and dancing. In "The
Blue Necklace," Mabel must find – not a prince – but her real mother,
a dancer/movie star.
Stroman doesn’t tell anything with a straight face, yet she somehow
manages to give the flattest of cardboard characters a smidgen of
distinctive movement that makes them almost believable. Kyra Nichols –
an NYCB principal dancer now affiliated with Princeton Ballet School –
has the plum role of the stepmother. At first impoverished, Nichols
manages to evoke some sympathy when her husband comes home with a
foundling girl. Then, greedy, she is a caustic foil to the spunky and
sweet Mabel, affectingly danced by the young Tara Sorine and then by a
company dancer, Ashley Bouder.
The second act, "Makin Whoopee," to such Walter Donaldson tunes as
"Love Me or Leave Me" and "My Blue Heaven," is a total madcap
scramble, complete with chase scenes, pratfalls, and a performing dog.
Tom Long has a once-in-a-career role as an endearing Buster Keaton
style anti-hero who must marry immediately in order to inherit $7
million and save his law partners from being bumped off. The men in
the chorus have a once-in-their-lifetime opportunity – I never thought
I’d see the day – to dress up in bridal gowns in a frantic effort to
woo Long. The way Stroman does it, it’s a hoot. And boy does the
orchestra have fun.
– Barbara Fox
Double Feature, New York City Ballet, New York State Theater, Lincoln
Center, Columbus Avenue at 63rd, New York, 212-307-4100.
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