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Some Kind of ‘Wonderful’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Rosalind Russell starred in “Wonderful Town,” she made Ruth, the wisecracking writer from Ohio, a role indelibly her own.

Lucie Arnaz--who will play Ruth in a concert version of the 1953 Tony Award-winning musical opening Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center--modestly figures she’s a match for Russell.

“Ruth is just as much a Lucie Arnaz type as she was a Roz Russell type,” the tall, vivacious actor says, proving her point minutes later at a Burbank rehearsal hall with her own brand of show-biz radiance.

Arnaz, whose large brown eyes seem to drink everything in with a blink, struts across the dance floor and runs through her brassy first-act solo, “One Hundred Ways to Lose a Man,” selling the song as only a Broadway veteran can. She alternately belts and purrs--her grin gleaming, her cheeks dimpled, her lips suddenly pouting sexily.

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: In ‘Town’ and You’d never guess from her youthful appearance or her bottomless energy that this slim, long-legged daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz has been married for 18 years and is a 46-year-old mother of three teenagers.

“I like Ruth because she’s smart,” Arnaz said during a break. “She’s funny, witty and vulnerable. She’s got problems. She’s got things to change about herself. She’s got a place to go. That’s what you want when you play a character.”

Arnaz has played the role before, starring for eight performances last November at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse, where both her portrayal and this concert version of the show drew raves from the critics and standing ovations from sold-out houses. This time out, “Wonderful Town” will have four performances through Sunday in Costa Mesa.

“Ruth is the best kind of part to play,” Arnaz added. “She has a lot of great jokes. But she also has a lot of sweet little moments. In a play like this, which is kind of hellzapoppin’ wacky, it’s nice to have a part centered in character.”

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Co-starring with her is Stephanie Zimbalist as Ruth’s sister, Eileen, along with Cliff Bemis, Tony Abatemarco, Joe Joyce, Andy Rice and a half-dozen others from the main ensemble reprising their roles under director Don Amendolia, who staged the same production with the same creative team--musical director Peter Matz and choreographer Kevin Carlisle--at UCLA.

"[The] Orange County [center] wanted to do the show,” Arnaz said. “I told them I wouldn’t come back unless they got the same principals. So they asked us, literally, could you all come back and do it again. We lost a few chorus people, but we got virtually the same cast--which is really fun.”

The Beginnings of ‘Wonderful Town’

“Wonderful Town” wasn’t so wonderful when Broadway wizard George Abbott began putting the original production together in the early ‘50s. There was “more hysterical debate, more acrimony, more tension, and more screaming than with any other show I was ever involved in,” the legendary director once said.

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The musical’s book, by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, was based on several Ruth McKinney short stories from the New Yorker magazine, which they had previously adapted as the comedy “My Sister Eileen,” a 1940 Broadway hit.

With just five weeks to rehearsal, the songwriters were fired and Betty Comden and Adolph Green were brought in as lyricists. They turned to their friend Leonard Bernstein to write the music (some of which anticipates the score for “West Side Story”).

Russell, who starred in the 1942 film (also titled “My Sister Eileen”), had to be lured to Broadway to do the musical. She didn’t have much of a singing voice and hadn’t appeared on a Broadway in a dozen years, neither of which gave her confidence. But she triumphed.

“It’s never been any secret that Miss Russell could rear back, hoist her chin, look down her nose, and curl a wisecrack off her lower lip with withering magnificence,” New York Herald Tribune critic Walter Kerr wrote in his opening-night review.

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“What she’s been keeping from us is the open-armed abandon, the sheer animal spirits with which she can set a whole stage to rocking around her. . . . Miss Russell may never be quite able to sing a song; but she certainly knows how to animate one.”

“Wonderful Town"--not to be confused with 1944’s “On the Town,” which also has music by Bernstein and lyrics by Comden and Green--tells the story of two sisters from Ohio, who rent a dingy apartment in Greenwich Village and hope to conquer New York. Ruth, a freelance writer, can’t get her stories published; Eileen, a would-be actor, can’t help attracting men. (Edie Adams played Ruth’s sister in the 1953 original.)

Cast Members and Roommates

“It’s Ruth’s show,” Zimbalist noted. “I’m the little aperitif in this. Ruth is the delicious character. I hope one day I get to do the part. But Eileen is fun because she’s such a lovely person. She’s so good. As Donny says, ‘She sees the doughnut and not the hole.’ Her voice leaping up an octave in a girlish lilt, Zimbalist went on: “ ‘Well, let’s make everything work for everyone!’ Eileen knows life is going to be sunshine, which is very healthy for me to play. I get to have a lark, which isn’t that easy for me. I’m Russian.”

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In fact, the blood of Hollywood aristocracy runs in her as well, though perhaps less famously than it does in Arnaz. Zimbalist’s father is Efrem Zimbalist Jr., the film and TV actor, Broadway producer and composer (his Violin Sonata will be performed next month at music festivals in Telluride, Colo., and Camden, Me.).

“I’m the lame end of the line,” quipped Zimbalist, a Juilliard School drama-division dropout who was born in New York and grew up in Los Angeles. “I’m the first generation in which a sonata has not been written by one of the Zimbalists.”

(Her grandfather Efrem Zimbalist was the celebrated violinist--composer and director of the renowned Curtis Institute of Music. Her grandmother Alma Gluck was one of the great sopranos of her day.)

Arnaz, born and raised in Los Angeles, lives in northern Westchester County, a suburb of New York City. During rehearsals and for the run of the show, Zimbalist is putting her up at her home in Beverly Hills.

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The two have known each other for more than 20 years, ever since the mid-1970s, when Arnaz worked with Zimbalist’s father in a made-for-TV movie, “The Black Dahlia,” and have kept up a professional and personal friendship of sorts.

“We both did ‘My One and Only’ with Tommy Tune,” Arnaz recalled. “She took over for me in the national company. And when I was living out here she used to come over to my house to take tap class. We used to exercise and take tap together.”

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Southern California playgoers may recall Arnaz (starring with Stockard Channing and Sandy Duncan) in the West Coast premiere of “Vanities” at the Mark Taper Forum in 1976. But her theatrical career has been concentrated largely in the East, where she starred on Broadway with Robert Klein in her breakout show, the Neil Simon-Marvin Hamlisch musical “They’re Playing Our Song,” and also as Gittle Mosca in “Seesaw,” Bella in “Lost in Yonkers” and in a two-woman show with Estelle Parsons, “Grace and Glorie.”

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“I’d love to take this to New York,” she said. “I’d be thrilled if some producer would come see it [at the center] and say, ‘Absolutely. Let’s take it maybe not this coming season but the next one.’ Then we could go out on the road after that.”

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Arnaz doesn’t expect that to happen, however, given the difficulty and expense of booking a theater in Manhattan.

“I wouldn’t push anybody to go into this business,” she said. “I’m considering leaving it myself. It’s so hard. . . . you can’t make a living out of it.

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“When people come to you and it’s not an effort to get a show, theater is great. But I don’t think I’m going to wait for these things for too many more years. I have more energy than that. I’ll probably write and produce.”

* “Wonderful Town,” Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $16-$49. Ends Sunday. (714) 556-2787.


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