Based on a series of short stories by Ruth McKenney published in The New Yorker, the stage musical Wonderful Town has a less-than-wonderful production history. Marked by company disputes and a score that had to be rewritten due to star Rosalind Russell’s indisposition, the show had been a success as a nonmusical play in 1940 featuring Shirley Booth. The 1942 film version, My Sister Eileen, starred Russell as Ruth and Janet Blair as Eileen, the bright-eyed sisters fresh from Ohio and eager to make it big in The Big Apple.
When plans for the musical version began Russell’s limited range had an impact on the final score by gay composer Leonard Bernstein; the lyrics are by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The preproduction period for the show took place during a particularly ugly time in US history. Only weeks after working on the show, bisexual choreographer Jerome Robbins went before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and named names — including Jerome Chodorov, one of the writers of the show’s book. Chodorov’s brother, Edward, was also named and later remarked (as recounted in the Shaw program notes) that he had been “stabbed in the back by the wicked fairy.”
Given that the entire plot is located in New York’s Greenwich Village the notion of fairies, wicked and not so wicked, may loom large in any gay audience member’s response to the musical. Director Roger Hodgman’s version for the Shaw fest might have done well to include a little more gaiety and a little less attention to the “realistic” details of an old musical gem; the production is in dire need of some fresh visual polishing.
The sets by William Schmuck and costumes by Judith Bowden, although vibrant and effective, lack the nuance and detail that could have blasted this production into the future, giving it a somewhat more relevant, less time-capsule-like demeanour. The opening number, “Christopher Street,” is an obvious example. The painted curtain depicts a primitively drawn, colourful street scene that reveals, once it is raised, a slightly more realistic yet relatively lacklustre take on a Greenwich Village neighbourhood from the middle of the last century. What with the advent of musicals such as Avenue Q and Rent, Hodgman’s approach to Wonderful Town could do with a little anachronistic flair, breathing gay life into a rather dull “straight” forward and polite view of the past. How about Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick — or Brent Carver and Thom Allison — as gay brothers in the leads? Allison’s immense musical theatre skills are a delight but underused in the role of Chick Clark in the current Shaw version.
Despite a rather pedantic visual approach, the cast lives up to the name of their show. Lisa Horner as Ruth is quirkily breathtaking in featured numbers such as “Swing” and “100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man,” while Chlina Kennedy exudes a wonderfully naive spirit as the starstruck beauty Eileen. With the support of a marvelous chorus of agile young policemen, William Vickers as Officer John Lonigan stops the show with his charming and physically adept song and dance routine “My Darlin’ Eileen.”
Signalling the first professional staging of Wonderful Town in Canada, the Shaw production is a fun-filled, musically diverse piece of light summer fare that could use a little more narrative depth through the use of evocative visual aids. The program notes, surprisingly enough, go on at length about the tragic events that marked the lives of the real-life Eileen and Ruth, including blacklisting, suicide and fatal car accidents. Alas, such is the life of a Broadway-induced character who, one might ask, in the spirit of one of the show’s most memorable reprises, “Why oh why oh why oh did [she] ever leave Ohio?”