The Broadway season has smothered more than a few glittering performers in shrouds of mediocre material, so it’s a real joy to find a gem of a performance shining in its proper setting, a gold-plated show. Returning to a role that she triumphed in, all too briefly, three years ago, Donna Murphy knocks one out of the park in “Wonderful Town,” giving a performance of such sustained wit, buoyancy and charm that she seems to blow any dust off the pages of this 50-year-old musical with the first breath from her petite frame.
It’s hard to believe so much time has passed since that spring 2000 staging at City Center’s Encores! series — the vibrance of Murphy’s performance still feels fresh in the memory. A second look confirms those recollections aren’t burnished by nostalgia: Murphy is, in fact, even sharper and funnier now, and her perf is the humming engine that drives this appealing, modestly scaled revival.
The production is essentially a smartly tarted-up version of that concert staging, once again choreographed and directed by Kathleen Marshall. Rob Fisher, the musicals-in-concert series’ music director, is in his usual place upstage, surrounded by an orchestra that’s generous by Broadway’s current standards. It allows Don Walker’s original orchestrations of Leonard Bernstein’s music to shine anew. Cleverly conceived but minimal sets by John Lee Beatty, riffing on Encores’ traditional gilt-frame device, add dashes of period authenticity. Pouring on the colorful lighting accents, Peter Kaczorowski turns the stage into an urban kaleidoscope.
Although it limits the space available for staging, there is a poetic aptness to the orchestra’s presence onstage, and not just because Bernstein’s music is ageless in a way that not all the other elements in the show are. The music captures the brassy energy and excitement of urban living in melody and rhythm — it’s almost a character itself, representing the drumbeat of street life that goes on outside the windows of the subterranean apartment where Ruth Sherwood (Murphy) and her sister Eileen (Jennifer Westfeldt) struggle to find a foothold on happiness.
These naive Midwesterners have settled in Greenwich Village, that hotbed of bohemianism fondly spoofed in the show’s zestily staged opening number, in which Martha Graham dancers plunge and lunge amid a swirling crowd of writers and artists. The production does not attempt to comment on the distance we’ve traveled from the days when the Village could be presented as both alluringly naughty and entirely wholesome. It trusts the still flavorful wit in the book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, and the lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, to compensate for any shortcuts in plotting or simplicities of character, and it mostly does. The show dates from the days when a rollicking good time was all musicals were expected to deliver, and dramaturgy was an unknown word.
The episodic storyline contrasts Ruth’s thwarted efforts to get a job in journalism with Eileen’s trail of swooning admirers. Although the big dreams of these Midwestern girls get a little nicked along the way, a happy ending is never in question. Ruth gets her press card, all right, and finally finds romance with that magazine editor. Eileen juggles her besotted swains without dropping anyone on his head, and gets her big nightclub break just in time to provide the show with a jazzy finale.
The performers embrace the material with brio and affection, and the production has been cast with a sure eye. Nancy Anderson and Raymond Jaramillo McLeod are a comic pleasure as the young couple living in sin (!) next door. Peter Benson is a sweet goof as Eileen’s admirer from the soda fountain at Woolworth’s. As the tough-skinned editor who turns out to be an old softy, Gregg Edelman has just the right quality of boyishness going gray around the edges, and he sings stylishly.
Westfeldt, star and co-author of indie pic “Kissing Jessica Stein,” has a pretty, heart-shaped smile and the right, slightly dim sweetness for Eileen. Her singing voice is light but pleasing, and she is delicious as she swoons in turn over two men and a chocolate candy in “A Little Bit in Love,” one of the score’s nuggets of real gold.
But the evening belongs to Murphy. The role of Ruth was tailored to fit Rosalind Russell, who had a limited vocal range. Murphy does not, and one of the real pleasures of this revival is hearing the score delivered with an instrument that gives it its full due. But Murphy proves to be an assured comedian, too, with acerbic line readings that add a softening pinch of pathos to Ruth’s sardonic asides.
She looks chic as can be in Martin Pakledinaz’s neatly tailored suits and dresses, of course. In fact, the combustion that occurs when Murphy’s naturally dignified poise meets the knockabout comic aspects of the role is the greatest source of the evening’s energy. The physical exuberance of Murphy’s perf may be its most delightful aspect. Her energy never seems to flag, nor her grace falter, as she vamps through a series of literary spoofs, or delineates with hilarious flair the “One Hundred Easy Ways” to lose a man. She scats up a storm in the big jazz number from act two and, most pricelessly, is tossed hither and yon by a pack of delirious Portuguese sailors bent on learning the conga.
Even the smallest bits of business are performed with a keen sense of character and an innate theatricality: Just wrestling with a recalcitrant sofa bed, Murphy manages to raise a chuckle. There is, in other words, no end to the pleasures of her performance.