Monday, May 21, 2012

THEATER: Wonderful Town

Photo/Bella Muccari
As it turns out, Wonderful Town isn't all that wonderful: sixty years can be rough on any musical, especially one with a book as chasm-like as the one that's been adapted here by Joseph Field and Jerome Chodorov (from their play, My Sister Eileen, itself adapted from Ruth McKenney's autobiographical New Yorker stories). And while the broad stereotypes that describe the artistic communities in New York City, circa 1935, are a good fit for the equally obvious sets and costumes from William Davis and Jevyn Nelms (crooked lettering, aftermarket Halloween capes--not that there's anything inherently wrong with theater-on-a-budget!), this Gallery Players revival of Wonderful Town ain't all that wonderful neither. Leonard Bernstein's difficult orchestrations are occasionally mangled, more than a few numbers are undersung ("Ohio," for one), and Scott Cally's persistent use of the spotlight in his lighting design only makes some of the blinding issues more . . . well, blinding.

And yet, if I'd seen Wonderful Town before it closed, I'd have recommended it to you all the same, because Gallery Players, hit-or-miss, has always done a phenomenal job of building a little-show-that-could around one or two ready-for-primetime-players. (Last year's The Drowsy Chaperone is the benchmark I'm holding them to; their 2008 Man of La Mancha still makes me smile.) In this case, their star is Molly Pope (who I'll have to catch the next time she's at Joe's Pub), who plays a plucky, brash Ohioan girl determined to make it as a writer in New York City -- and to perhaps find a man who can look past her beautiful sister, Eileen (Laurie Sutton, a bright girl who doesn't quite manage to live up to her character's reputation), and not be intimidated by her direct ways. (If you could save only one thing from this show, it would have to be Ruth's wonderfully self-deprecating "One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man.")

Fittingly enough, Wonderful Town also finds its footing in the jazzy choreography from Elyse Daye Hart and Trey Mitchell, particularly with numbers like "Swing" and "Wrong Note Rag"; it's director Mark Harborth who sometimes stumbles during the silent vignettes or montages that make up songs like "Christopher Street" or in finding an energetic transition into some of the sillier bits like "Pass the Football" and "Conga." But even these moments are brighter when Pope's involved; with her powerful and resonant voice and swift yet solid footwork, she seems a hundred times more present than her castmates, with the exception of her love interest, Robert Baker: actor Adam Kemmerer doesn't quite lose himself in the melodies, but he comes close during "It's Love." That's not to lay this on the feet of the ensemble -- they blend well and dance well, and as the nebbish pharmacist Frank Lippencott, Will Roland pulls out some genuine laughs -- but more on the dated conventions of the musical itself and the enough-is-enough attitude of Harborth's direction, neither of which asks much more of nightclub owner Speedy Valenti (Brad Giovanine) than swagger, nor anything other than sleaze from Chick Clark (Alex Pagels). (Angela Dirksen and Mark Cajigao are particularly blighted by this; they're surely better than they appear to be here.)

So yes, while this production of Wonderful Town is far too sluggish and general to really hit the mark -- if it even still can -- it's worth taking a lesson from any aging town: those bright spots only get brighter.

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