Wonderful Town, the second Broadway collaboration between Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and to a lesser extent Jerome Robbins, was created during the height of McCarthyism, a menace that must have weighed heavily on the show’s authors. Robbins—who’d choreographed the trio’s first production, On the Town, and doctored important sections of Wonderful Town without credit—landed before the House Un-American Activities Committee a few months after the show opened in early 1953. Among the names he gave to the committee was Jerome Chodorov, who cowrote the show’s book. Two months later the State Department refused to renew Bernstein’s passport until he signed an affidavit swearing he wasn’t a communist.
But you’d never know that anything scarier than colorful drunkards, booming construction, and snobby rich people lurks in the quaint, quirky Greenwich Village where Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, late of Columbus, Ohio, apply all manner of pluck and spunk to making it big. Plain intellectual Ruth wants to write. Vivacious blond Eileen wants to act. Through a series of drawn-out misadventures, they each end up with a foot in a promising door.
The show’s creators set the action in 1930s, when they, like the sibling protagonists, were trying to make their mark. That’s of course long before Joseph McCarthy ever browbeat a witness; it’s director Mary Zimmerman who’s moved the action of this Goodman Theatre revival to the 1950s. But no matter the decade, it’s a wafer-thin story in sore need of complication (the original managed to leave out the Great Depression). One wishes Comden and Green—who’d shown how sophisticated a diverting period piece could be in their screenplay for Singin’ in the Rain—had written the book as well as the lyrics.
What complications the show does offer come from Bernstein’s ingenious score (played here by a full live orchestra under Doug Peck), which mixes myriad popular musical styles with academic concert techniques: shifting time signatures, dissonant sonorities, unifying motives, and unusual modulations (I counted 11 key changes in the opening number, and I likely missed a couple). It’s all bound together with soaring melodies well handled by the cast.
Zimmerman wisely acknowledges the story’s simplicity; Todd Rosenthal’s humorous set makes every building, car, train, and passing cloud a two-dimensional cutout. Too often the supporting characters surpass that by being one-dimensional, but the leads find more nuance, particularly Bri Sudia, who as Ruth makes a predictable path seem surprising, bringing nearly as much ingenuity, intricacy, and panache to her performance as Bernstein brought to his score. It’s her show from start to finish. v