The rarely-done Wonderful Town, most well known for its music by Leonard Bernstein, concludes Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston’s forty-seventh season. The campy, rollicking ride through New York City would be nothing without song-birds Jennifer Ellis and Katie Anne Clark. Wonderful Town surprises in its classic and brassy score and its committed ensemble with Ellis and Clark leading the crowd in rousing group numbers and pacing the show at a delightfully sharp clip. Both Ellis and Clark have proven themselves capable of star-studded success in recent individual performances, but it is their sisterly love and comedic duo that make them an unforgettable pairing for a musical treat to end the summer on a high note.
Wonderful Town tells the story of the Sherwood sisters who journey from Ohio to New York City to make it big. Ruth Sherwood (the comedic genius Katie Anne Clark) is a brilliant and motivated young writer who is missing the “W” key from her typewriter. Her sister, Eileen Sherwood (the dashing Jennifer Ellis), wants to be an actress, if she doesn’t become distracted by the many men in New York City first. The musical opens with a Tour Guide (Kevin Patrick Martin) showing a band of curious newcomers the many wonders of Christopher Street – Martin plays the role to stirring success because of his clever use of the song’s lyrics and the carefully-planned action by Director David Hugo that underscores the opening number. We are delighted to follow this Tour Guide wherever he takes us, and we couldn’t pick a better place to be with a cast of zany characters.
The Sherwood sisters settle into a tiny studio owned by artist (and potential slum lord) Appopolous (well-timed Jack Agnew), and they begin doubting themselves as the reality of their new harsh and strange surroundings hits them. Clark and Ellis sing a slow-moving duet, “Ohio”, about their longing for their home and what they’ve left behind. The number is better reprised later in the show when the levels between the two female singers is fixed; the first rendition of the song has Ellis’ melody a thin strain while Clark’s impressive low alto harmony fails to blend. The reprise confirms that it was microphone levels, not the actresses’ talent or command of the song, that hindered the first rendition, and it becomes an instant favorite for the production because of the warmth and sincerity in Ellis’ and Clark’s performances.
And what would a big city be without male suitors? And Ellis’ Eileen has plenty of them. But we’re focused on one man, Mr. Baker (Kevin Cirone), a confident and overworked editor who becomes attracted to each of the two sisters, Eileen for her looks and pleasing demeanor, and finally Ruth for her confidence and charm. The evolution of these relationships is well-played, though Clark and Cirone lack some of the necessary chemistry to sustain their romance as the central love story for this musical. Like some musicals of its era, Wonderful Town lacks some of the exposition and development to create the sustainable romantic relationships for modern sensibilities; namely, audiences today won’t buy love at first sight, and, instead, we rely on the moment-to-moment actions that solidify a potential and emerging relationship.
Luckily, the other relationships are so much fun to watch, such as Doug Gerber’s smarmy Chick, Dan Prior’s foppish Frank, Christopher A. King’s adoring Officer Lonigan (kudos to him for making a strong choice for an accent and having the stamina to sustain it throughout the performance), and David Carney’s goofy Wreck (albeit, briefly, given his attraction and commitment to his live-in lover, Helen (Julianne Daly). Despite a weak “Conservation Piece,” these lovers deliver strong individual performances, infusing the ensemble and village with personality and purpose. It’s the strong ensemble numbers that make this a truly wonderful town; the old proverb “it takes a village” is rarely felt as palpable as in Reagle’s stacked ensemble of performers. “Conga!” is a vibrant flurry of crisp, white navy uniforms and a swirl of male hips and movements. Choreographer Eileen Grace and Director David Hugo accent this number within the story of the musical by showcasing Clark’s Ruth as a woman stuck in a man’s world, who must make her mark and play by their rules. We learn that Clark plays by her own rules.
Earlier, Clark had stolen our hearts in her lively “One Hundred Easy Ways,” describing how Ruth could easily write a book about how to lose a man, but instead wins in her easy command of song and dance in her performance. She returns in Act II for an equally dynamic “Swing” with the Villagers ensemble, leading them in Grace’s impressive choreography. Clark’s Ruth is a triumphant melody of Merman-esque humor mixed with cool control. She is able to entertain with both her strong vocal prowess and her commanding acting talent. Clark has emerged with her Actor’s Equity card with a hunger to make her mark on the Greater Boston theatre scene. Now, let’s hope that others realize this untapped potential.
The music direction and balance (with the exception of the original “Ohio”, later resolved in the “Ohio (Reprise)”), have rarely sounded better, and Dan Rodriguez leads the band to stunning effect. Rodriguez emphasizes Bernstein’s overlooked score to transport us back to the sound of swelling symphonies, roaring trumpets, and cool melodies. His coaching brings out the best from the soloists and ensemble. Hugo and Grace keep the action moving forward and the scene changes brisk, despite some lull in “Pass the Football” and “Conversation Piece.” The other parts of the musical were strong in their energy and purpose that these numbers and their accompanying scenes seemed out of place and lethargic.
Wonderful Town was truly wonderful; a rarely-produced gem of musical theatre greatness with memorable performances in some perfectly-cast roles. To see an exciting cast of strong performers transform into a community to deliver a love letter to New York City, dreams, and success was truly lovely and delightful. But to see Ellis and Clark work in tandem, supporting each other’s strengths and succeeding as a sisterly duo, was well worth admission alone. We need more leading actors, like Ellis and Clark, who work like supporting actors, helping their co-stars to shine. That is when we see how really wonderful this town of Boston really is and how to make a gorgeous and forgotten musical simply unforgettable.