'Wonderful Town' at the Goodman

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Wonderful Town at the Goodman
Wonderful Town at the Goodman
Photo: Liz Lauren

They just don't write 'em like that anymore. This phrase could be aptly applied to the classic musical comedy Wonderful Town, now getting a major revival at the Goodman Theater, under the direction of innovative director Mary Zimmerman.

Wonderful Town, written by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and music by Leonard Bernstein, is a zesty 2.5 hours that, essentially, was built as a star vehicle. An iconic Rosalind Russell starred in the original 1953 production as the spry and delightfully wry Ruth Sherwood - the elder sister of the beautiful Eileen. The Sherwood sisters have just moved from rural Ohio to the eclectic Greenwich Village in NYC. Chaos and comedy happens, with the requisite happy ending.

To be clear, the source materials isn't in the same league as, say, On the Town or Guys and Dolls. The emotional moments seem force-fit -- for example, a love story between Ruth and some gentleman she meets while pounding the pavement looking for a writing gig, emerges out of thin air. One of the shows loveliest songs, "A Quiet Girl," simply doesn't make emotional sense in the show. Why does a guy who just met the fiercely independent Ruth lament about wanting his "quiet girl"? My theater companion physically squirmed at the musty sentiment that a women is only desirable if she tamps down her identity. And the show features enough lecherous male tropes to fill a Dateline episode.

At any rate, the score is snappy, and the rollicking band in Goodman's production does Bernstein proud (music direction by Doug Peck). In fact, the overture is worth the price of admission. And the hard-working ensemble, which is filled with diverse Chicago talent, keeps the blood pumping. Particularly a refreshing Bri Sudia as Ruth, who's making a career turn here. Sudia manages the fine balance of making Ruth a contemporary creature who still makes sense in the world of this Wonderful Town. Lauren Molina as Eileen serves as a lovely foil, but at times leans on contemporary shtick to mine a laugh.

The real sticking point here is the direction. Zimmerman is obviously a creative genius, but her take here, which moves the action from the '30s to the '50s, feels tone deaf. This is largely due to the visual concept, which makes the show look like it's trapped in a Hanna Barbera cartoon. Todd Rosenthal's two-dimensional, Easter egg inspired sets are clever in concept, but feel, well, flat. Meanwhile, Ana Kuzmanic's comical, yet surprisingly unflattering costumes, make everyone look like an inflated caricature.

Sure, the show is zany fun, but it feels as if Zimmerman didn't trust the material and layered a lot of visual noise on it to compensate. As a result, the hard-working actors telescope their performances to the point of camp. And I left the Goodman feeling exhausted — despite a toe-tapping performance of “Wrong Note Rag,” one of the best tunes from the Golden Age.

"Wonderful Town" plays through October 23 at the Goodman. More info here >