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Robert Abrams
Performance Reviews
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Hirschfeld Theatre
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Wonderful Town

by Robert Abrams
June 3, 2004
Hirschfeld Theatre
302 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036

Wonderful Town

At the
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
A Jujamcyn Theatre

302 West 45th Street


Robert Abrams
June 3, 2004

Wonderful Town is a great show carried by the force of its characters. The dancing is well done with choreography that includes numerous cross-discipline references. The singing is consistently resonant. The story is believable, in a Technicolor sort of way, although the plot progression moves abruptly at times. The Al Hirschfeld Theatre is a beautiful space with an exhibit of his drawings that would be worth a paid admission by itself (I grew up searching for "Nina" in his drawings). Wonderful Town is definitely worth seeing, and then do yourself a favor and buy the CD with the cast recording.

Now that I have gotten the unmitigated praise out of the way, I will proceed to a detailed analysis and one or more heretical proposals.

The orchestra is seated on the stage on a raised platform, much like in Chicago. The show starts with a lively and vibrant overture that sets the tone for the evening: you know you are going to have a fun time. The set is relatively shallow from front to back. It is layered with fire escapes painted a slightly tarnished, but golden, color in the foreground. The background is a silver, art deco rendering of the New York skyline. In between, a variety of latticework drops are lowered and raised as needed. The net effect does a good job of suggesting the density of the city.

In an old tradition that extends at least as far into the present as Sex and the City, Wonderful Town takes place in a representative, but otherwise non-specific part of New York. However, there is enough detail in the show to pin down exactly where it takes place. The two key pieces of information are the fact that it takes place in 1935 and that the building in which the Sherwood sisters take up residence on Christopher Street is on top of or very near the blasting for a new subway line. There are only two subway lines that cross Christopher Street. One is the 1/9 line. The section of the 1/9 line that crosses Christopher Street was built in the 1910s. I tried to find to find a reference to the date the Christopher Street station opened, but so far haven't found one. I do have a reference for the opening of the West 4th Street station on the 6th Avenue line, as well as the West 4th Street Station the 8th Avenue line. This is the nearest station on these lines to the place where these lines cross Christopher Street. The 8th Avenue Line portion of this station opened in 1932, while the 6th Avenue Line portion of the station opened in 1940, so it is entirely plausible that construction crews were blasting on or near Christopher Street in 1935. This would place the location of Wonderful Town somewhere on Christopher Street between Waverly Place to the west and 6th Avenue to the east. I am drawing on unofficial sources, and this is a play, so the details are not guaranteed to be 100% accurate, but based on the available evidence I am reasonably certain the location of Wonderful Town can be narrowed down to this 2-3 block section of the West Village.

The Christopher Street musical number was full of dance references. Most notably, it included a trio of modern dancers performing a riff on Martha Graham's Lamentation. The purple cloth pulled over each dancer's head reads very clearly if you are familiar with modern dance (although Lamentation is usually performed as a solo, not a group number). If you are not familiar with modern dance, the segment still reads clearly as "modern" and "village", so I thought it was well choreographed to allow multiple audiences to draw apt meaning. Of course, Wonderful Town is not modern dance (although more on that later). The Lamentation-like segment melded well with the archetypical Broadway style choreography (lots of arms energetically reaching for the sky) that, appropriately, is the main stylistic backbone of the show's choreography. The choreography also often uses poses to establish character, and in this regard is much like some traditions of classical ballet.

Tina Ou, Angela Robinson, Devin Richards, David Eggers, Ken Barnett, Lorin Lararro, Ray Wills and Rick Faugno in "Christopher Street."
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

The movement quality, whether in formal dance numbers or the kinds of scenes half-way between dance and acting that are often found in Broadway musicals, is precisely articulated, and is visibly punctuated with a sharp rise and fall. The casting couch scene is a good example of the latter. The depiction of the crowd being bounced along on the Subway is another good example (if only the actual Subway was quite so artful). If you are looking for it, you will also see that the dancers have good stillness as well. This is something that only an obsessive critic would look for, but it is usually a good indicator of the dancers' capabilities.

Dance, and partner dance in particular, is used as a reference at several points in the show. During the Ohio number, the Sherwood sisters briefly move in closed position, suggesting that partner dance is a normal part of the social scene in Ohio.

Eileen Sherwood is shown in a chorus audition, which includes dancing with chairs (not as elaborate or as aggressive as the dancing with chairs in Swango, but notable nonetheless).

A zoot-suited, scat-singing Swing club owner plays a major role in the show and is an example of the slightly larger than life characters you will find so well portrayed in Wonderful Town. Donna Murphy does an exceptional job of portraying multiple characters, in addition to "herself" in Lose a Man. She achieves these characters in part because she is extremely expressive with her lips alone as well as with her full body. Her lips looked readable to the last row, and, in fact, the entire cast's diction was clearly enunciated.

The show has Broadway production values, and yet still manages to fit into what feels like an intimate theatre. Given what you pay for a Broadway ticket these days, you ideally want an experience that provides intensity and immersion: Wonderful Town set in the Hirschfeld Theatre delivers both intensity and immersion.

There was a section during the football scene where the actors danced in slow motion as they ran down the field. This felt remarkably like one of the sections of one of Grupo Corpo's works. The connection is more likely an example of convergent evolution than of causal influences, but it adds to the richness of Wonderful Town that one can make a plausible connection between Golden Age Broadway and cutting edge modern dance.

The Conga number had a rising progression of groove. Initially the Brazilian sailors acted like they have never danced Conga before and perhaps are awkward about dance in general, but then get into it with verve and style, as you would expect Latin Americans to do since, by and large, they grow up with dance as a regular part of their social life, much more so than North Americans. (But if you are a North American, don't give up hope. With enough lessons, it is possible, on occasion, to be mistaken for a Brazilian by Brazilians.) The Brazilian sailors prove to be the kind of people who can't think of anything but dance: my kind of people.

Donna Murphy with (from left to right) Vince Pesce, Mark Price, David Eggers, Devin Richards, Rick Faugno and J.D. Webster
Photo courtesy of Andrew Eccles

Ruth seems to be liberated by the Brazilian dancers. She ends up leading a long line of them stretched out in both directions with herself at the center. Leading multiple partners simultaneously is a generally accepted sign of dance mastery and coolness. Ruth goes through this kind of transformation several times during the show. It could be interpreted as an inconsistency in the plot, but I think the likely explanation is that Ruth has both restrained and wildly expressive parts to her personality. She just needed time and several runs at it to let her expressiveness come out with full confidence.

As I said in the beginning of this review, the plot progressions of Wonderful Town are often a little abrupt. For instance, Ruth congas the Brazilian navy from Brooklyn to the Village. When this doesn't wear the sailors out, Ruth hands them over to Eileen, who keeps the Conga line going. The second act starts with Eileen in jail because she has apparently sunk the Brazilian navy. The transition made me scratch my head to figure out what was going on. It eventually became clear, more or less, and in an important way it doesn't matter because the show is built on the force of the characters: you can accept some amount of absurdity and discontinuity as a normal part of theatre and sit back and enjoy the show. Each scene is internally consistent and well crafted, and is certainly linked to the other scenes in both plot and character, if sometimes somewhat tenuously. Still, if I were the producers and I was searching for the "perfect" show, I might want to add some scenes. Eileen sinking the Brazilian navy has got to be worth seeing. Given the talent of all of the actors in the show, I am sure they could pull it off. I know, this is a revival and adding scenes in such a major way would be heretical, but that's my two cents on the plot. I think it would be worth at least running a workshop production to play with it.

Of course, this plot discontinuity does set up a song and dance number where a line of policemen and Eileen do a brilliant send-up of Riverdance, so I really can't complain.

The other "problem" with Wonderful Town, from a dancer's perspective, is that there isn't enough dancing. What dancing there is is great, but rather than, for example, staging a short Swing dance number (it looked like mostly Lindy Hop with some Shim Sham type inflections) as a throwaway transition number at the end of a scene, I would want to see this section of choreography expanded and made more integral to the scene. The pacing of the show is very well done as is, so they don't really need to change anything, but surely it isn't unreasonable to expect every Broadway producer to always feed dancers' addictions?

Donna Murphy and Company in "Swing."
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

The Vortex club number featured a senuous Sway and Grind with nice dips, Charleston, Turkey Trot and lots of sharp, 20s style kicking that got the audience (that is, the actors playing the club audience) involved in the dance during the Wrong Note Rag number. If only the Hirschfeld Theatre was big enough to let the real audience get in on the act the way that Tina Croll did at the Danspace Project.

The Company in "Wrong Note Rag."
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

Robert Baker and Ruth complete their falling in love with a Smooth dance (probably a Foxtrot), which I thought was apt.

The show ends with a post-bows reprise of the Conga.

All in all, Wonderful Town is a well constructed show with great performances by the leads, including Donna Murphy and Jennifer Westfeldt, as well as great performances by the rest of the cast and the band. Wonderful Town has been nominated for a basketful of Tony Awards, and should rightfully be awarded at least one if not more. That, however, is no reason for Kathleen Marshall, the director and choreographer, to rest on her laurels. She should take the dance portion of the Christopher Street number, add in new layers drawn from the other dance references used throughout this production of Wonderful Town, and expand it to about 45 minutes so she could run it as a pure dance work for a week at the Joyce Theater. Now that would be a cool show.

(For a more theatre oriented review, click here.)

The Cast: Donna Murphy and Jennifer Westfeldt, Gregg Edelman
David Margulies, Michael McGrath, Raymond Jaramillo McLeod, Peter Benson, Nancy Anderson, Ken Barnett, Randy Danson, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Linda Mucleston, Timothy Shew, and Ray Wills
Joyce Chittick, Susan Derry, Randy Donaldson, David Eggers, Rick Faugno, Stephanie Fredricks, Lorin Latarro, Lisa Mayer, Tina Ou, Vince Pesce, Devin Richards, Jeffrey Schecter, Matthew Shepard, Megan Sikora, J.D. Webster, Laurie Williamson
Book By Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Directed and Choreographed by Kathleen Marshall
Supervising Musical Director and Vocal Arranger: Rob Fisher

Produced by Roger Berlind, Barry and Fran Weissler, Edwin W. Schloss, Allen Spivak, Clear Channel Entertainment and Harvey Weinstein, Alicia Parker, and Daniel M. Posener

Press Representative: The Pete Sanders Group

Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design: Lew Mead
Hair Design: Paul Huntley
Make-up Design: Angelina Avellone
Script Adaptation: David Ives
Casting: Jay Binder/Laura Stanczyk
Original Orchestration: Don Walker
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Production Supervisor: Arthur Siccardi
Production Stage Manager: Peter Hanson
Associate Choreographer: Vince Pesce
General Manager: B. J. Holt
Musical Director: Rob Berman

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