Mary Zimmerman’s postcard to Bernstein’s NYC makes a persuasive case for the show’s title.
Worry not for the Sherwood sisters of Columbus, Ohio. Newly arrived in New York City, their early misadventures form the basis of this sweet (and occasionally sardonic) 1953 musical love letter to a town that was probably never so wonderful as it’s depicted here. Ruth (Bri Sudia) and Eileen (Lauren Molina) may hit a few speed bumps and potholes on “Christopher Street,” but Leonard Bernstein’s evocative score, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s snappy lyrics and book writers Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov’s brisk banter practically telegraph a happy ending from the opening number.
Mary Zimmerman’s new revival at the Goodman amps up that effect in its visuals, with sunrise-bright lighting by TJ Gerckens, jewel-toned costumes by Ana Kuzmanic and a shifting 2-D skyline by scenic designer Todd Rosenthal that reminded me of a Chris Ware cartoon (but is actually based on an illustration by Steven Duncan). Rosenthal and Zimmerman have a few whimsical surprises up their sleeves, too, though they’re oddly confined to the scenic transitions; you might wish to see a bit more of that inventiveness applied to the scenes themselves.
Music director Doug Peck brings an 18-piece orchestra beautifully to bear on Bernstein’s highly eclectic score, which includes pastiche takes on conga, ragtime, Irish love ballads and hep-cat swing, among other moods. And the cast is, well, pretty wonderful; the supporting roles are for the most part underwritten, but a number of actors give their all to filling them in, notably Wade Elkins as a nerdy suitor of Eileen’s and Jordan Brown as oafish out-of-work football player “The Wreck.”
As for the leading ladies, Molina and Sudia make a fine sister act. Molina, late of Zimmerman’s Candide, is delightfully daffy as aspiring actress and man-magnet Eileen, while Sudia (Shining Lives, A Musical at Northlight; Far from Heaven at Porchlight) essays a star-making turn as aspiring writer Ruth, witty and wise but not nearly as worldly as she’d like to project. Her brassy Act I rendition of the self-deprecating “One Hundred Easy Ways” should alone earn some kind of award. Wonderful Town might be on the frivolous end of the musical meter, but the Goodman imbues it with enough zip to power a city.
Goodman Theatre. Book by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Directed by Mary Zimmerman. With Bri Sudia, Lauren Molina, Karl Hamilton. Running time: 2hrs 35mins; one intermission.