Wonderful Town, a 1953 musical with music by Leonard Bernstein, is this year’s Citadel Theatre Young Musical Company performance, directed by Bridget Ryan with musical direction by Sally Hunt.
It’s a silly fluffy large-cast show with lots of mistaken identities and misunderstandings, goofy characters, delightful period costumes, and a happy ending. The setting is New York City’s Greenwich Village in the 1930s, with a mix of young people, artists and performers, prostitutes, and immigrants living in the inexpensive apartments of the area. The premise was actually quite similar to Avenue Q.
The story opens with a tour guide in straw boater (Adam Houston) showing some tourists the sights and inhabitants of Christopher Street, Washington Square, and nearby areas. This device allows many of the cast to be briefly introduced while setting the scene in a song. Then the main characters, sisters Ruth (Zia Mizera) and Eileen (Sydney Williams) from Columbus Ohio, arrive with their suitcases, looking for an apartment and hoping to make their names in writing and in show business, respectively. Landlord and painter Mrs Appopolis (Michelle Diaz) rents them a tiny basement apartment, shown on stage with twin beds cunningly pulling out of a backdrop, and a window grate at street level opening on an outside staircase. We learn quickly that older sister Ruth is the practical outspoken one, but both of them are quickly overwhelmed with the big city, the apartment shaking with detonations for subway construction, men looking for the prostitute previous tenant (Phoebe Davis), drunks peering in the grate or unzipping to urinate through it. This sets up the lovely song “Ohio”, in which they express their homesickness while rhyming the name of the state with “Why,oh why oh,” I was particularly charmed because I used to live in Columbus.
Ruth sends out her writing to editors (Roland Meseck, Eugene Kwon, Michelle Diaz) and tries to get work in journalism, while Eileen mostly seems to spend her time meeting “boys” (Bryce Stewart, Adam Houston, etc). Ruth’s wry song “One Hundred Easy Ways To Lose a Man”, acknowledging that her competence, bluntness, and unwillingness to dissemble are disadvantages in dating, is possibly not quite as true today as it was sixty years ago when the song was written, but it’s still familiar and the song is a good exposition of Ruth’s character, putting the audience on her side. Neighbours Wreck and Helen (Daniel Greenways and Bridget Lyne) are an unmarried couple whose plans to conceal their cohabitation when Helen’s mother (Phoebe Davis) visits are also slightly dated to a modern audience but still humorously familiar.
In classic musical theatre structure, the first act ended with plot complications and an uptempo song and dance number with lots of cast members in it. Ruth is tricked into believing she has an assignment to interview some Brazilian naval cadets for a human interest story, but the sailors (Houston, Kwon, Davis, Taylor Paskar, Diaz, Lyne) just break into an enthusiastic and uncontrollable conga line which lands in Ruth and Eileen’s apartment and gets Eileen arrested for disturbing the peace.
As the second act opens, Eileen is in custody in a station full of police officers with Irish accents, all charmed and all convinced she is Irish. After a few more twists and turns, everyone has happy endings – Ruth finds both requited love and journalistic employment, and Eileen is a hit singing in a nightclub.
Most of the performers are cast in several roles, showing their versatility. The only characters that I had a little trouble distinguishing were Bryce Stewart’s Valenti (the nightclub promoter) and Chick Clark (the newspaperman). Zia Mizera and Sydney Williams were very good together as the contrasting but loyal sisters.