Wonderful Town, Gallery Players, 5/12/12
I'm not sure why My Sister Eileen - a collection of mid-1930s New Yorker stories by Ruth McKinney, which follow the author (sharp-tongued budding writer) and her titular sister (dippy-sweet budding actress) from Columbus to Greenwich Village, has had so many dramatic incarnations: a 1940 non-musical play, a 1942 movie with Rosalind Russell, this 1953 Bernstein/Comden & Green musical, which also starred Russell on Broadway, a different movie-musical adaption in 1955 (mainly remembered for Bob Fosse's choreography, and probably made because Columbia still owned the rights to the play and was too cheap to pay a premium for the extant score), and a short-lived TV series. However creakily the material comes out now (though I understand that the original stories are more interesting), it probably gets its "legs" from being a straightforward (and extremely light) treatment of the innocents-in-Bohemia archetype: any movie or sitcom where square aspiring artists contend with urban "types" owes it a small debt. References to one or another version crop up in unexpected places: the apparent allusion in the Guy Cointet play I talked about last week might be coincidence, but I was surprised two nights ago to pick up an anthology of New York poems and find the Fugs' Tuli Kupferburg at "The Charleston on Charles St./featuring my Sister Eileen/& the Kronstadt Sailors." (Does that mean the movie was a double feature with Potemkin?)
The fact that Wonderful Town is somewhat remembered - its best-known song, "O-H-I-O" ("maybe we'd better go home") is a charmer, not a showstopper - but less canonical than West Side Story or On the Town, perhaps because the score never made it into a movie, means that it's most often revived in modestly-scaled productions like this one. We went out of solidarity with Bree's cabaret fellow-traveler Molly Pope, who we first encountered at an open mic several years ago, singing the Cranberries' "Lovefool" as Ethel Merman might have done it. Her huge, almost vibratoless alto is pretty distinctive (especially at a moment when boringly Gleeful pop-soul sopranos are the norm), and made to order for mid-century musical-theater. Laurie Sutton's Eileen, and the rest of the cast, are unobjectionable-to-good, but I doubt anyone involved would deny that Molly carries the show, comically as well as vocally. (The most amusing thing in the play-as-such are the brief dramatizations of the terrible fiction her character has been writing in Ohio, which parody Hemingway, Odets, and Coward. Of course, it turns out that when she writes about her and her sister, it's Alive and Warm and Real - per Little Women and I Remember Mama, the moral is "write what you know.")
Unfortunately, the nature of the assignment (as the "plain" sister, though, like Roz Russell, Molly isn't plain, just tall) means that she's compelled to sell the inordinately sexist "100 Ways to Lose a Man" (all of which reduce to: be smart) and the extended cod-jive of the "Swing" number, in which she gradually grasps the downtown "rhythm" and "message" while shilling for the "Village Vortex" nightclub. This number has always puzzled me, even on the cast recording, as it seems to conflate big-band jitterbugs with proto-Beats -- Comden & Green, who got their own start as writer performers at the Village Vanguard in the late '30s, surely knew better. It's also odd because much of Bernstein's score, simply taken as music, is precise and covertly sophisticated, using mildly modernist devices -- broken-record effects, dissonant stabs -- to convey the "urban." I might not have noticed some of this if I hadn't heard Raymond Knapp talk about it in March at EMP -- and certainly wouldn't have registered that the horn line beneath the unassuming character song "Pass that Football" is a perfect serialist tone row.