Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Wonderful Town"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


"WONDERFUL TOWN"

music by Leonard Bernstein
lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov
based upon the play “My Sister Eileen by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov
and the stories by Ruth McKenney
Sketches for “What a Waste” by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

directed by Paul Daigneault
choreographed by David Connolly
musical direction by Janet Roma

Ruth … Julie Burchfield
Eileen … Darla Cardwell
Robert Baker … Dominic Sahagan
Lonigan … Bret Carr
Appopolous … Matt Wolpe
Helen … Rachel Cantor
Wreck … Andrew Miramontes
Valenti … Kawa Ada
Mrs. Wade … Meghan Murphy
Chick Clark … Logan Benedict
Frank Lippencott … Aaron Jackson
Violet … Bronwyn Stayoch
Guide … Rance Wright*
Shore Patrolman … Eric Imhoff
Second Cadet … Michael Fasano
Fletcher … Kyle Pleasant
Editor 1 … Luke Hawkins
Editor 2 … Tim Kava
Editor 3 … Adam Berry
Editor 4 … Michael Mahany
Man with Ruth outside Village Vortex … Colin Israel
Chef … Rance Wright*
Waiter … Michael Fasano
1st Cop … Michael Mahany
2nd Cop … Adam Berry
3rd Cop … Colin Israel
4th Cop “Eileen” Solo … Dan Micciche
5th Cop … Luke Hawkins

Ensemble:

Adam Berry; Katherine Donahoe; Michael Fasano; Misha Faucher; Luke Hawkins; Eric Imhoff; Colin Israel; Tim Kava; Veronica Kuehn; Nikka Lanzarone; Michael Mahany; Dan Micciche; Emily Mixon; Dayla Perkins*; Kyle Pleasant; Nina Ragaz; Valerie Sages; Lindsay Schuman; Mara Solar; Rance Wright*

* = Dance Captain

Orchestra:

Conductor … Janet Roma
Reed 1 … Shay Salhov; Leslie Walters
Reed 2 … William Chien; Rachel Light-Diede
Reed 3 … Dennis Shafer
Reed 4 … Kenji Kikuchi*
Reed 5 … Alejandro Soraires
Trumpet … Jeremy Garnet; Noah Johannis; Fred Langer
Trombone … Denis Lambert*; Wes Hopper*
Percussion … Thomas Schmidt; Jeffrey McCoy
Piano … Markus Hauck
Violin 1 … Ann Bermont; Jin Hee Park
Violin 2 … Ji Won Lee; Eric Hung
Viola … Ben Kaminski
Cello … Belinda Viesca
Bass … Ivan Maksimovic*

(* = Denotes guest artist)

I once wrote, “for my money, [director Paul Daigneault and choreographer David Connolly are] the best musical team in town. I would love to see what they can do with LADY IN THE DARK or THE GOLDEN APPLE.” Well, I got part of my wish: for a few performances, Messrs. Daigneault and Connolly showed what they could do with a conventional book-musical, in this case, WONDERFUL TOWN, part of Leonard Bernstein’s New York trilogy (the others being ON THE TOWN and WEST SIDE STORY). Their production, cast with Boston Conservatory singers/dancers, came too late for Christmas and too early for my birthday (next month) but I am still ecstatic over my present: this TOWN was truly wonderful.

Some characters have legs, going from fiction to play to movie to musical to movie, such as the King of Siam, Auntie Mame and Sally Bowles. WONDERFUL TOWN’s small-town sisters, Ruth and Eileen, are in their company; their comic (mis)adventures in Greenwich Village began as Ruth McKenney’s autobiographical stories for the New Yorker in the 1930s which served as the basis for a long-running comedy and popular film in the 1940s. WONDERFUL TOWN updates the scene to the 1950s but the premise is the same: Ruth and Eileen, from Ohio, come to New York to pursue careers in writing (Ruth) and acting (Eileen). Ruth is the smart, wise-cracking old maid; Eileen is the innocent mantrap --- between them, they turn a number of men’s heads while their own are constantly turned by New York’s hustle, bustle and never-ending flow of eccentrics wandering into their apartment (no locked doors, here). It’s a sunny, funny show, overshadowed by the darker WEST SIDE STORY; its libretto strongly resists updating but now works beautifully as a valentine to a vanished New York that never was. Leonard Bernstein’s jazzy score is more than catchy (I’m caught) and the Betty Comden-Adolph Green lyrics are clever and smart with clear skies, throughout (those skies would start to cloud in the 1970s and only now starting to clear once again). Surprisingly, none of the score’s songs ever became standards, though “Ohio” remains a comic-duet favorite (“Why, oh why, oh why, oh / Why did I ever leave Ohio?”) and “It’s Love” is an eleven o’clock surprise.

Frankly, when I attended the Boston Conservatory production, I expected the worst: “hot”, hard, knowing young performers with steel in their voices and rock-rhythms in their movements, i.e., what you find in today’s musicals. Instead, I got the best: the BoCo ensemble was a happy, friendly one and it was a growing delight to watch them frolic about in their Eden as if they had climbed out of Generation X and into the light; even the show’s whore was no more than a tough-talking broad with garish clothes. Such a talented ensemble, too; the pudding’s proof lay in their encompassing Mr. Daigneault’s pop-direction and Mr. Connolly’s sassy, swinging choreography --- neither man had to lower their standards to make these students look good --- as a result, said students became classy; stylish. (What a refreshing change to watch choreography in sync with Jerome Robbins’ era with its roots in ballet and its healthy, celebratory sense of fun and wonder!) The showstoppers came in Act Two with “Swing!” and “Wrong Note Rag” and, especially, “My Darlin’ Eileen” which should be added to all dictionaries’ definitions of the word “joy” and encapsulates all that is good, silly and charming about the musical genre: Eileen has been carted off to jail (another misadventure) and has enchanted the entire police force, made up of Irishmen, who (beautifully) woo her as a colleen. She says she is not Irish, they insist she is, and they all perform a celebratory jig --- twice --- before she is set free. There is no point in dismissing the number as bunk --- of course, it is --- it boils down to whether it gives you pleasure or not; if it does, then you know what a Golden Age Musical is all about. “I want magic!” cried Blanche duBois. WONDERFUL TOWN was created by magicians.

It may be hard to come up with a sweeter musical pairing this year than Julie Burchfield and Darla Cardwell as Ruth and Eileen, those mishap-prone sisters. Ms. Burchfield is short, brunette and rounded in all the right places; Ms. Cardwell is tall, blonde and showgirl-leggy --- ginger ale and vanilla milk shake. They blended well, with that mutual support and platonic friendship that sisters who are close possess, and they captured that all-important small-town sensibility (i.e. virginity) for this girl-meets-boy show --- Ruth, for all her brass, melts like butter when Mr. Right comes along. Ms. Cardwell was very appealing and Ms. Burchfield is blessed with plenty of pizzazz as well as voice; in less skilled hands, Ruth would have become another travesty of womanhood, geared for the camp crowd; happily, Ms. Cardwell wisecracked 50s style; her Ruth was smart, sexy and definitely dateable --- she is this year’s find as far as I’m concerned and I hope she stays in the Boston area when she graduates this year; our theatre scene will be all the richer if she does. As the sardonic Mr. Right, Dominic Sahagan was the jaw-dropper: an attractive, reserved young man who morphed into a romantic lead with his two solos; his baritone, though still green, is warm, firm and already centered and Mr. Sahagan would be wise to stay in the Golden Age for now rather than stretch his voice on the racks of anthem-writers. The supporting standouts were Kawa Ada’s Valenti, one of the oddest hipsters to ever shimmy across a stage, and Aaron Jackson’s gangly Frank Lippencott, all elbows and kneecaps, who embodied every shy, awkward young man on his first date (one of my sisters went steady with a similar lad; when Mr. Jackson first appeared, it was like going home to Thompsonville, Connecticut). Meghan Murphy, the battle-ax mother/mother-in-law, had a memorable throwaway exit: she uttered a line then, with a swing of her hips, slid into the wings as a cardboard figure pulled away by wires --- another stylish touch where other directors would not have looked.

Janet Roma smoothly conducted the onstage BoCo orchestra (peppered with guest artists) --- these students were ready (hungry?) for Mr. Bernstein’s score and played as if they had cut their teeth on be-bop --- and Crystal Tiala’s simple set design (art deco cutouts of skyscrapers and a steel catwalk) nicely bridged the gap between production and concert.

Total it up, now: a classic musical, staged by the best team in Boston, showcasing bright, young talents --- who needs Broadway, sometimes?

LADY IN THE DARK and THE GOLDEN APPLE, next, please.

"Wonderful Town" (4 - 7 March)
THE BOSTON CONSERVATORY THEATRE
31 Hemenway Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 912-9222

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