Thalian Association is closing its season with “Wonderful Town,” a lovely musical adaptation of Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov’s straight play, “My Sister Eileen.” They wrote the book for the show with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and a phenomenal score by Leonard Bernstein. The material comes from a memoir of the same name, by former New Yorker writer, Ruth McKenney. It chronicles the adventure she and her sister shared.
In essence, “Wonderful Town” is a time capsule. Set in 1935 it delves into the lives of the Sherwood sisters, Ruth (Sarah Holcomb) and Eileen (Tatiana MacMartin), as they make the big leap from Ohio to New York City in search of fame and fortune. It opened on Broadway in 1953 with Rosalind Russell and Edie Adams as the two leads.
In both the 1930s and the 1950s, women had to fend for themselves. The the ultimate prize, at least for the families of young ladies, was marriage. Though female-kind has come a long way, battles still need to be fought—perhaps more so in the arts than we realize. Wikipedia’s recent flap about creating the “American Women Novelists” index and removing scores of writers (including Harriet Beacher Stowe, Judy Bloom and Louisa May Alcott) from the “American Novelists” index is but one example. While it’s a time capsule in the sense that ostensibly men and women did not live together before marriage—and certain mores were more strictly observed—the struggles that young women face in perusing their dreams are still real. Only today, they’re no longer solvable by marriage.
Terry Collins’ set is a perfect recreation of 1930s era New York: all the elegant lines coupled with the drab colors of greens and grays that typify the Depression in the American mind. The subway and the interior basement apartment come complete with people walking by at the street level; all are exceptionally well done.
I must admit giggling with delight when the show opens with a musical homage to “Christopher Street,” where the girls are going to live in Greenwich Village. Surrounded by graying senior citizens nodding along to the lyrics, I couldn’t help but be amused since Christopher Street is the home of The Stonewall Inn (of the Stone Wall riots) and has become an important symbol of gay pride. Of course, this is supposed to be Christopher Street in 1935, long before Stonewall, so it’s a tour of artists, dancers and prostitutes.
The girls rent the basement apartment for better or for worse and begin to meet their neighbors. Upstairs lives an unmarried couple, The Wreck (Nick Williams) and Helen Wade (Rachel Grace Walter). Nearby is Speedy Valenti (Laura Brogdon), a nightclub owner. Frequently passing by is the neighborhood cop on the beat, Officer Lonigan (Dan Hutchens). The girls set off to conquer their dreams: acting for Eileen and writing for Ruth. The show explores just how tough life was in the big city for women in the ‘30s with “Conquering New York.”
Ruth eventually makes her way to the editor’s office for a literary magazine. Robert Baker (Justin Xavier Carteret) reads her work, and, though he won’t publish her stories, he does see her potential. Meanwhile, Eileen has developed a following among males in New York and tries to land an acting gig.
All the singing in this show is on point, but the two most surprising come from Justin Xavier Carteret—who I’ve never had then pleasure of seeing—and Sarah Holcomb. Holcomb’s Ruth does not hold back an inch. They both have lovely voices, and their duet in “It’s Love” at the end of the show truly delights. Dan Hutchins’ Officer Lonigan’s “My Darlin’ Eileen” with the male ensemble captivates, too—even more so when the cops break into Irish step dancing.
For Bernstein it is a surprisingly upbeat show. Act I ends with a joke in the form of “Conga,” a number about the dance sensation sweeping the nation. It also ends up getting Eileen arrested.
If the show has any detractions, it is that microphone problems plagued it during my visit. MacMartin’s mic dropped out completely during “Ohio,” her duet with Holcomb. She does great work and deserves to be heard.
Laura Brogdon’s choreography beautifully incorporates the jazz age a la the Charleston and dances inspired by the golden age of Broadway. She maneuvers a lot of people around, yet keeps them looking good while moving the show forward. With a cast of nearly 30, that is no easy undertaking.
Musical director Amanda Hunter successfully pulls off an impressive 12-piece orchestra that could make Bernstein proud. The live music really makes the song and dance numbers in this show pop.
Holcomb and Brogdon both come as understudies, and their work is something at which to marvel. Hats off to both for seamless performances that appeared polished in every way. For a lovely trip down memory lane, “Wonderful Town” is sure to remind everyone what it is like to be young and chase your dreams.
Thalian Hall • 310 Chesnut St.
Thurs.-Sun., May 22nd-25th, 8 p.m. or 3 p.m., Sundays
Tickets: $15 (Thurs. only) – $30