Review: Wonderful Town (Goodman Theatre)

| September 23, 2016

Bri Sudia and Lauren Molina and cast in Wonderful Town, Goodman Theatre           

Wonderful Town

Music by Leonard Bernstein 
Lyrics by Betty Comden, Adolph Green
Book by Joseph Fields, Jerome Chodorov
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
thru Oct 23  |  tix: $25-$103  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets   


Bernstein’s music steals the show


Bri Sudia and Lauren Molina and cast in Wonderful Town, Goodman Theatre

Goodman Theatre presents
Wonderful Town

Review by Catey Sullivan

Eye-popping sets, lavish costumes, clever choreography, a lush, 16-piece orchestra in the pit and a 26-member ensemble – what more could one ask from director Mary Zimmerman’s opulent revival of Wonderful Town? A compelling plot for one. Characters even a shade deeper than the cartoon cut-out skyscrapers that dominate the scenic design for another. And how about a story that doesn’t feature a weirdly aggressive through-line of sexual harassment played-for-yucks?

Erica Stephan, James Earl Jones II and Tiffany Krause in Wonderful Town, Goodman TheatreWonderful Town is lovely to behold, filled with Zimmerman’s signature touches of whimsy. Todd Rosenthal’s set of rolling skyscrapers and scudding clouds is a playfully beautiful rendition of 1950s New York. When it transforms to feature a basement-level, rust-and-roach-infested studio, Zimmerman makes sure that even the bugs are more charming than gross. Manhattanites zip by on taxi-cab skateboards, miniature subways rattle across the city and tiny airplanes soar above.

As for Leonard Bernstein’s score, it’s a treasure that ranges from conga to scat to swing to ballad and beyond. Music director Doug Peck and conductor Ben Johnson oversee an orchestra that finds the joy and the emotion in every last note.

But time hasn’t been kind to Joseph Fields’ and Jerome Chodorov’s book. And it’s a stretch to say there’s anything like an actual story involved with Wonderful Town. Instead, the scenes play like a series of Laugh-In sketch rejects. If there is humor or heart to be found here, it’s in spite of the book rather than because of it. When the music stops and the dialogue takes over? Wonderful Town is rather like the Emperor’s New Clothes. There’s no there there. Peel away the Ana Kuzmanic’s colorful, period costumes and Rosenthal’s set and you’ll come upon a core that’s hollow.

The plot (to use the term loosely) follows Ruth (Bri Sudia) and Eileen (Lauren Molina) Sheridan, sisters who leave the stultifying conformity of Ohio in hopes of making their mark in the Big Apple. The pair are a study in calculated contrasts, both physical and emotional: Ruth is a tall, formidably intelligent brunette who wants to be a writer and who sings humorously about her inability to keep a man. Eileen is petite, blonde aspiring actress who attracts the undying affection of men everywhere she goes, be it jail or the local Walgreens. The show follows the sisters through a series of disconnected adventures, none of which deepen the characters, furthers the story or makes much sense.

Erica Stephan, Steven Strafford, Sharriese Hamilton, Aaron Holland, Nathaniel Braga and Todd Rhoades

That’s the primary problem with Wonderful Town. There isn’t a single scene in the show that has a ring of truth to it. Ruth’s short stories are so ridiculously awful they call to mind the annual Bad Hemingway Competition, minus the self-awareness writers bring to that contest. And yet, Ruth captures the attention of an editor who is willing to lose his job for her. Eileen’s audition scene shows her to be a performer in the vein of Florence Foster Jenkins (minus the funding) – which makes it downright perplexing when she suddenly become capable of bringing down the house at a famous jazz club.

The sisters are surrounded by broad character types.You can’t call people this two-dimensional actual characters; each is a one-note joke, repeated over and over. There’s a football player who’s most significant dialogue involves flexing his muscles. There’s a draconian society lady who finds the Village about as tasteful as a used hankie. There’s a cad who is genuinely creepy in his insistent pawing of Eileen. And there’s the noble editor who – for reasons that never make sense given what we hear of Ruth’s short stories – champions Ruth’s work.

The disjointed plot never coalesces into an actual story. Ruth gets a reporting assignment that gets her drafted by Brazilian sailors who draft into leading them on a conga line through New York. Before a dinner-party-gone-wrong scene, the fourth wall momentarily vanishes as a massive crate labeled “SCENE SIX” is lowered from the rafters before opening up and dumping lawn chairs all over the stage. Eileen gets arrested because…well, it’s never quite clear. She kicked somebody? She was falsely accused of stealing a painting? The show needed a last-scene-before-intermission crisis. I’m going with Door No. 3.

Jordan Brown, Kristin Villanueva, Bri Sudia and Lauren Molina in Wonderful Town, Goodman Theatre

Throughout, men constantly show up uninvited in the girls’ apartment, climbing through the window, suddenly appearing from a side door, or simply barging in. It’s tepidly amusing the first few times various insistent gents show up. But repeated countless times though a show that’s over two-and-half hours? Your attitude depending, it’s either a tiresome joke that wears out its welcome fast or a bizarrely unpleasant “joke” that was never that funny to begin with.

Still, Sudia and Molina make the absolute most of the limited material. When they mesh voices on “Ohio,” the blend is positively transcendent, Sudia’s lush alto twined like velvet around Molina’s silver flute of a soprano. Both are skilled comedians. Sudia has a deadpan wit that suffers no fools – especially not those of the male persuasion. Molina has a lightness and an aw-shucks innocence that serves the role well Both women sound outstanding, Sudia evoking both Lucille Ball and Ethel Merman in the hilarious “One Hundred Easy Ways” and Molina soaring through “A Little Bit in Love.” They both instill sparkle and a feather-light sense of fun into “The Wrong Note Rag,” a song that would be a showstopper were it part of a serviceable show.

Given Bernstein’s score, Wonderful Town could work beautifully as a concert. But not even all the whimsy in the world, paired with the mighty resources of the Goodman, can make it palatable as a full musical. If you’re looking for larger-than-life staging and rich music-making, this show’s for you.  If you’re looking for even a modicum of relatable storytelling, there’s plenty of other options currently playing.

Rating: ★★★

Wonderful Town continues through October 23rd at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map), with performances Wednesdays 7:30pm, Thursdays 2pm & 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2pm & 8pm, Sundays 2pm & 7:30pm.  Tickets are $25-$103, and are available by phone (312-433-3800) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 2 hours 35 minutes, includes an intermission)

Bri Sudia as Ruth sing Swing in Wonderful Town, Goodman Theatre

Photos by Liz Lauren




Lauren Molina (Eileen), Bri Sudia (Ruth), Karl Hamilton (Robert Baker), Wade Elkins (Frank Lippencott), Steven Strafford (Chick Clark), Jordan Brown (Wreck), Amy J. Carle (Mrs. Wade), Matt DeCaro (Appopolous), Christina Hall (Violet), James Earl Jones II (Speedy Valenti), Kristin Villanueva (Helen), George Andrew Wolff (Lonigan), Nathaniel Braga, Ariana Cappuccitti, Sharriese Y. Hamilton, Aaron Holland, Mark David Kaplan, Tiffany Krause, Kent M. Lewis, Russell Mernagh, Jeff Parker, Jody Reynard, Todd Rhoades, Lainie Sakakura, Ian Saunders, Erica Stephan (ensemble), Ariane Dolan, Jordan Dell Harris, Terrance Martin, Scott Ray Merchant, Camille Robinson (understudies)


Ben Johnson (conductor), Michele Lekas, Katherine Hughes, Dominic Johnson (violin), Mark Lekas (cello), Dominic Trumfio, Michael Favreau, Steve Leinheiser (reeds), Tim Burke, Carey Deadman, B.J. Levy (trumpet), Andy Baker, Michael Joyce, Christopher Davis (trombone), Dan Leali (drumset, percussion), Michael Keefe (piano), Shawn Stengel (keyboard), Jeremy Attanaseo (bass)

behind the scenes

Mary Zimmerman (director) Doug Peck (music director), Ben Johnson (associate music director, conductor), Alex Sanchez (choreographer), Todd Rosenthal (set design), Ana Kuzmanic (costume design), T.J. Gerckens (lighting design), Ray Nardelli (sound design). Charles G. LaPointe (hair, wig design), Briana J. Fahey (production stage manager), Kimberly Ann McCann (stage manager), Heather Boehm (orchestra contractor), Jeffrey Mosser (asst. director), Todd Rhoades (dance captain), Adam Belcuore (casting), Telsey + Company (NY casting), Robert Falls (artistic director), Roche Edward Schulfer (executive director), Liz Lauren (photos)

Lainie Sakakura, Lauren Molina, Erica Stephan, Ian Saunders and Kent M. Lewis in Wonderful Town, GoodmanBri Sudia and Lauren Molina as Ruth and Eileen in Wonderful Town, Goodman Theatre


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Category: 2016 Reviews, Catey Sullivan, Goodman Theatre, Leonard Bernstein, Musical, Video, YouTube

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