Modeling since she was in diapers, a famous beauty since before she entered her teens, Brooke Shields no doubt has been swatting off suitors since puberty hit. It’s a testament, then, to her canny comic flair that the former “Pretty Baby” turns out to be such an unexpectedly satisfying fit for Ruth Sherwood, the wisecracking wallflower at the center of “Wonderful Town.” Director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall’s witty revival of the exuberant 1953 musical celebrated its one-year anniversary over Thanksgiving, registering a 45% box office uptick since the new star came on board.
Donna Murphy, who originated the role in the City Center Encores! presentation in 2000 and brought it to Broadway last year, became known as much for her serial performance truancy as for her memorably savvy turn. And there seemed no reason to hope the replacement casting of Shields would be able to sustain, let alone boost, the show’s diminishing luster. But while Shields clearly is not in the same league of effortless song-and-dance accomplishment as Murphy, she brings a zesty spirit and self-effacing charm to the role that makes it new and fresh.
In keeping with the general vein of her predecessor (and of Rosalind Russell before her), Shields dishes out the acerbic observations with understated relish. However, it’s as much in the more physical aspects of the role — struggling with an unyielding sofabed, being tossed about by conga-fixated Brazilian sailors, teetering on her heels as subway blasting rocks her Greenwich Village apartment — that the actress reveals an appealing comic personality, perhaps honed during her sitcom stint on “Suddenly Susan.”
Improbable as it may seem, the willowy looker daffily defines Ruth as a gangly aspiring writer who’s certain of her sharp wits but awkwardly unsure of her attractiveness to men; she’s grown accustomed to becoming instantly invisible whenever her vivacious younger sister Eileen appears.
Shields’ unpolished dance moves seem entirely in keeping with her ungainly but endearing characterization. She conveys not only Ruth’s cultivated veneer of sophistication but also the homespun guilelessness beneath the brittle surface of the girl from small-town Ohio who arrives with her sister, looking to make it in New York.
The actress’s vocalizing demonstrates an unshowy but winning way with Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s droll lyrics, especially on “One Hundred Easy Ways,” in which she deadpans through her repertoire of unintentional man deterrents. In act-two energizer “Swing,” Murphy scatted up a storm, her voice seeming to contain an entire brass section. But while Shields was never going to equal that perf, she puts her own lusty spin on the vocally demanding number in which hopelessly square Ruth finds her inner hepcat.
As Ruth’s sister — the title character of Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov’s play “My Sister Eileen,” on which the musical was based — Jennifer Hope Wills is warm and winsome, her sweet soprano a neat match for a wholesome girl entirely uncalculating in her irresistibleness to men.
Wills is a disarming presence when playing off other actors but seems slightly wan in her solo song, “A Little Bit in Love.” The actress is at her best when sharing the stage, soaking up police adoration on “My Darlin’ Eileen”; hoofing energetically with Ruth on “Wrong Note Rag”; or providing gorgeous harmonies, again with Shields, on “Ohio” (the rueful lyric of which, “Why, oh why, oh why, oh — Why did I ever leave Ohio?,” might have fit nicely into John Kerry’s concession speech).
Here and there, the timing has slipped marginally, most ironically around the draggy “Conversation Piece,” which chronicles a dinner party filled with uncomfortable silences and slows the show to a pre-intermission crawl. But mostly, the cast continues to shine, including a handful of original members: Peter Benson has grown into an even more lovable romantic underdog as soda jerk Frank; Raymond Jaramillo McLeod remains a likably goofy gorilla as footballer Wreck; and Gregg Edelman, as the editor whose affections appear to veer between the sisters, has mellowed generously.
The show’s balletic passages — the Village Vortex jazz club presentation and “Conquering New York,” in which Ruth and Eileen first attempt to find jobs — have, if anything, been sharpened with time. And “Christopher Street” is still as bustling and amusing an opening number as any musical could contrive.
John Lee Beatty’s gilt-accented sets and Martin Pakledinaz’s stylish costumes continue to give dimension to a production cramped by its cohabitation with the orchestra. But as in the long-running “Chicago” revival, the Encores! policy of moving the orchestra out of the pit and onto the stage is jubilantly validated here, giving glorious buoyancy to Leonard Bernstein’s pulsing, infectious score.