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'Wonderful Town' is a Donna Murphy triumph

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   Dec. 18, 2003 at 8:12 PM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, Dec. 20 (UPI) -- The Great White Way is always looking for new star power to keep audiences coming to its shows, and the emergence of Donna Murphy as lustrous musical comedy star is just what the Broadway show doctor ordered.

The current revival of Leonard Bernstein's musical bouquet to New York, "Wonderful Town," is a glorious showcase for Murphy's powerhouse talents. As the song says, Murphy is "delicious, delightful, de-lovely" in the role of Ruth Sherwood, an aspiring writer from Ohio who comes to the Big Apple with her sister, Eileen, to find fame, fortune, and perhaps a man to love.

Producers got the idea of reviving the show for the first time since its 1953 Broadway premiere three years ago when Murphy triumphed in a concert performance of "Wonderful Town" for the "Encores!" series at Town Hall. But the actress was contracted for a role in the TV series "What About Joan," which later was canceled, and her life was complicated by two miscarriages.

Finally this season her schedule opened up and a theater became available, making the production possible. At 44, Murphy has become a star in the most glamorous sense of the word, able to bring an audience to its feet at curtain time applauding and shouting praises that Murphy generously shares with Jennifer Westfeldt who is making her Broadway debut as Eileen.

"Wonderful Town" is based on a play that was titled "My Sister Eileen" that was made into a film starring Rosalind Russell in 1942. Its protagonist, Ruth, has little proven talent as a writer, no money, and a record of frightening men away. Nevertheless she is more mature and sophisticated about the pitfalls of living in New York than her younger sister Eileen, a flirt who thinks men do her bidding without expecting anything in return.

Naturally they get into a lot of trouble and even precipitate an international incident involving the Brazilian navy.

The idea of two plucky innocents in the big city was hackneyed even when Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov wrote "Wonderful Town" 50 years ago and the plot is shamelessly contrived though amiable. But fueled by Bernstein's scintillating score and catchy songs with lyrics by the incomparable team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the show takes off like a rocket at the Al Herschfeld Theater and stays aloft without sputtering for two-and-a-half hours.

Donna Murphy has been around the theater for more than a few years without finding exactly the right role for her insouciant personality. Sure, she won a Tony Award for the unattractive, dour role of Fosca in Stephen Sondeheim's "Passion." Yes, she got another Tony for Anna in perfectly respectable revival of "The King and I." And her Helen of Troy in "Helen" was one of the most delectable performances Off-Broadway last season and won her more prestigious awards.

The role of Ruth gives Murphy the chance to show her versatility as an actress and as a singer in the course of portraying various facets of Ruth's unpredictable screwball personality.

In this full-scale production with imaginative Greenwich Village sets by John Lee Beatty and snappy 1935-era costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, Murphy is freed to move captivatingly about the stage and dance up a storm in the conga-inspired choreography of Kathleen Marshall, who doubles as the fast-moving production's director. It's a tour-de-force performance as riveting in its own way as Russell's fliply sarcastic interpretation in the film version.

Another of the show's strengths is the low-keyed but attractive performance by Gregg Adelman as a long-suffering magazine editor interested in Ruth as well as her fiction. Other fine characterizations are turned in by David Margulies, as the girls' lovably conniving Greek artist-landlord, Peter Benson as a soda jerk who falls for Eileen, Michael McGrath as a tough newspaper reporter, and Raymond Jaramillo McLeod as an unemployed former football star and his girlfriend, played by Nancy Anderson.

Several impressions remain after leaving the theater. For one there is Ruth leading the Brazilian sailors she has been sent to interview in a lively conga line, and for another there is the Riverdance-style hoofing of a troupe of policemen that have fallen for Eileen during a brief stay in jail.

And who can ever forget or put out of their minds Bernstein's anthem of regret,

Ohio," and its opening line, "Why Oh Why Oh Why Oh/Did I Ever Leave Ohio?"

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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