Great Place to Visit
The following is Times staff writer Don Shirley’s review of “Wonderful Town” as staged in November at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse, featuring the same stars, director, creative team and staging as the production running Thursday through Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center:
Two sisters share a bargain-basement apartment in busy Greenwich Village in 1935. And they do this within a musical, “Wonderful Town,” that requires a big, brassy band.
At many musical theater venues nowadays, the band would be radically reduced or squeezed into the pit, while the designers think of ways to make the oversized stage look cramped.
No problem. The band is onstage, perched on a platform that does ingenious double duty as one of designer David Sackeroff’s few set pieces. This leaves space at the front of the stage, just the size for a crowded apartment or the other densely peopled Manhattan locales that crop up in this 1953 Tony-winning musical.
The talent is exceptional. Lucie Arnaz romps through the role of the tall, sardonic writer Ruth as if it were written for her, whether she’s giving advice on how to lose a man or starring in fantasy scenes from Ruth’s potboiler stories.
When she gets swept up by a conga line of Brazilian admirals, and when she learns how to swing like the other Greenwich Village hepcats, it’s hard not to recall her magnificent comedy chromosomes, for these are situations in which we can picture Lucy Ricardo. But Ruth is more sophisticated than the fictional Lucy, and Arnaz gives her character a harder edge.
Stephanie Zimbalist plays Ruth’s sister Eileen, who has a much softer edge than Ruth but knows how to use it. In a blond curly wig, Zimbalist is adept at portraying Eileen’s innocent charms and especially funny as she entices the Irish cops who arrest her into waiting on her hand and foot, even after she confesses her lack of Irish blood. Zimbalist’s singing voice is pretty but very light, not a major problem in this role.
Director Don Amendolia’s supporting cast is a wonderfully eclectic stew of L.A. talent from many arenas, as well as a few newcomers. Despite the “semi-staged” status, no one used a script on opening night.
Cliff Bemis has a refreshingly different look from the usual romantic lead and a big, solid voice. Tony Abatemarco plays the sisters’ weaselly landlord, whose laughable artistic aspirations partially redeem him. Daniel Guzman is the cooler-than-thou nightclub owner; he looks more ‘50s than ‘30s--but, then, this is no documentary.
Andrew Rice and Jennie Fahn are the cutest couple; she’s about half as tall as he is. His dumb jock sings remarkably advanced lyrics (by Betty Comden and Adolph Green): You wouldn’t think this lug would use “Gide” in a rhyme. Joe Joyce and Andy Umberger play radically different kinds of amusingly graceless gentlemen callers.
Kevin Carlisle’s choreography flavorfully evokes the show’s rambunctious rhythms, and David R. Zyla’s outfits for the chorus line add to the sense of a halcyon era.
The show’s book--by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, based on Ruth McKenney’s autobiographical stories (earlier dramatized by the same team as “My Sister Eileen”)--is a period piece, but one that retains a lot of sprightly energy.
Leonard Bernstein’s music is nowhere near some of his other shows, but it serves the story well and lacks pretension. Peter Matz’s lively band adds remarkable texture and becomes part of the action, with Matz playing a drunk and other band members taking solos as they stroll back on stage after intermission, almost as if they’re Greenwich Village street musicians.