“Wonderful Town,” the zany musical comedy “cartoon” version of New York that features fabulously eclectic, endlessly danceable music by Leonard Bernstein, and shrewdly proto-feminist lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, opened Sunday night at the Goodman Theatre at the very moment the latest terror attack in Manhattan was still unfolding. So among many things, the notion — fantastical as it might ever have been — that the city once possessed a unique positive excitement and innocence (never mind the quotidian prostitutes, thieves, gross apartments with stratospheric rents and spirit-destroying competition) felt like a genuine tonic.
Although “Wonderful Town” will never be confused with Bernstein’s three other musical treasures — “West Side Story,” “Candide” and a sort of “kissing cousin” of the show, “On the Town” — the combination of Mary Zimmerman’s wackily playful direction, choreographer Alex Sanchez’s knockout choreography and the design team’s larger-than-life, pop-up-book version of the city infuse it with a goofy (and at moments poignant) spirit. And Zimmerman’s decision to shift the show’s original setting in the Depression era of the 1930s to the early 1950s — when New York was experiencing its mid-century “golden age” and publishing was king, the bohemian world of Greenwich Village was at its apex, and an almost futuristic energy could be felt on every street — makes complete sense.
The fun begins with the overture, a symphonic Broadway medley as only Bernstein could write it, played by a bravura 17-piece orchestra (with a particularly outstanding brass section) led by Ben Johnson. And then it’s on to the show’s opener, as a group of wide-eyed tourists are being shown the sights in Greenwich Village, complete with all its “artistes” and nut cases.
Meanwhile, on a plane moving through the cardboard clouds overhead are Ruth Sherwood (Bri Sudia, making an unquestionable star turn) and her younger sister, Eileen (Lauren Molina, whose speed, lightness and coloratura voice are custom-made for the role). They have just fled their safe but suffocating lives in Columbus, Ohio (and will soon pine for home in the charming song, “Ohio”), to make careers in New York. And though they’re totally opposite in every way, at the heart of this story is the fact that the two young women are great friends who look out for each other through thick and thin. (The story is based on the real-life adventures chronicled in the stories of Ruth McKenney and the play “My Sister Eileen.”)
Ruth is a writer of fiction and newspaper features — a big, broad-boned girl who is super smart, blunt, adaptable, determined and hopeless with men. Her song, “One Hundred Easy Ways” (to lose a man), is a show-stopping number brilliantly delivered by the altogether marvelous Sudia, who finds its perfect mix of stinging mockery, droll knowingness and hidden heartache. (This song could only have been penned by Comden, and possesses a touch of still all-too-timely genius.)
‘WONDERFUL TOWN’ Highly recommended When: Through Oct. 16 Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Tickets: $25 – $93 Info: www.goodmantheatre.org Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission
Eileen is petite, blonde and effusive. She wants to be an actress (though is something less than talented), but does far better as a natural man-magnet. No one is surprised when she gets a whole shipload of Brazilian sailors into the headlines (although Ruth does pretty well in this regard, too), or has the Irish policemen of New York doing a jig for her, or attracts the attention of a nerdy but sweet Walgreen’s manager, Frank Lippencott (Wade Elkins, a master of pratfalls), the nightclub owner and hipster Speed Valenti (James Earl Jones II, in comic form), the smarmy newspaper editor Chick Clark (aptly oily Steven Strafford) and, most crucially, the truly decent Robert Baker (the wonderfully natural Karl Hamilton, who soars in “A Quiet Girl” and the resounding anthem of the show, “It’s Love.”)
Baker is the one man willing to give Ruth a break and recognize her talent. And of course they are destined for each other, even if they don’t know it for most of the show, and Eileen seems to be the more natural lure. But without such complications there would be no time for dozens of other escapades and distractions involving the sisters’ landlord, Appopolous (Matt DeCaro); their neighbors (Jordan Brown as the muscled, brainless athlete Wreck and Kristin Villanueva as his girlfriend, Helen, whose chic dowager mom is deftly played by Amy J. Carle).
Nor would there would be any reason for Sanchez’s sensational “urban ballets” — everything from a raucous conga and rousing swing number to a coordination-testing “Wrong Note Rag,” with fly-by taxi rides along the way, all superbly danced by a large ensemble. Dancing, and comical, stylized movement of all kinds, are the operative languages in this production.
Todd Rosenthal’s endlessly ingenious sets are full of applause-inducing surprises (although I would argue with his choice of pastel colors for Manhattan’s skyscrapers), and Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes have a fun-house vibe. Altogether “Wonderful Town” suggests the anarchic (but indestructible) circus that is New York on a good day.
One final note: This show features the greatest cameo by a cockroach ever to crawl into a crummy New York apartment, and I speak as someone who spent many years trying to eradicate the pest in my own Manhattan studio.