Jennifer Westfeldt and Donna Murphy in Wonderful Town(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Jennifer Westfeldt and Donna Murphy in Wonderful Town
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Donna Murphy is doing a marvelous star turn in a part that was expressly tailored for another star, and it fits her like a Gucci glove. She's distinguishing herself in Wonderful Town, which won the 1953 Best Musical Tony. The original production's leading lady, Rosalind Russell, also strode off with a Best Actress Tony, an honor that could easily accrue to Murphy this season.

She plays Ruth Sherwood, a Columbus, Ohio girl -- they were still called girls in the '30s, when the musical is set -- who comes to Manhattan to be a writer with her sister Eileen (Jennifer Westfeldt) in tow. Not surprisingly, she achieves her goal after a series of lightweight mishaps with landlord Appopolous (David Margulies) and prospective editor Robert Baker (Gregg Edelman). Incidentally, Ruth Sherwood is a stand-in for Ruth McKenney, whose somewhat fictionalized accounts were considered charming when they appeared in The New Yorker during that magazine's early years. One of those bright girls who views herself as a little too sophisticated for her hometown, Ruth is witty, plucky, sardonic, and a bit brittle as McKenney depicted her in her stories (and as Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov adapted the stories into a play and later this musical). She's the kind of woman who might intimidate men whether she's in Columbus or New York City, and still might do so today.

Slim and shapely as a hood ornament, Murphy has all the requirements for Sherwood: the clipped delivery; the knowing, sidelong glances; the eyebrow that arches and resettles so quickly, you're not sure it's happened; the folded-arm stance and the limber walk. She has gaiety and gumption, and when she delivers the three socko specialty songs that composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green custom-tailored to Russell's limited vocal range, she scintillates. Even a die-hard Rosalind Russell fan might admit that the many accents Murphy manages to fit into "One Hundred Easy Ways (to Lose a Man)" makes that spoken-and-sung ditty seem more effective than ever.

This brings up the one cavil a reviewer could lodge about Murphy's performance. The superlative Russell was a comic actress who could carry a tune, and she carried it low in her voice. Russell's keys don't seem to have been changed for Murphy, who not only carries a tune but discus-throws it into the next playing field. Perhaps music director/vocal arranger/conductor Rob Fisher has made some adjustments, and perhaps Murphy -- recovering from the effects of a cold that kept her out of some preview performances and rehearsals -- will sound stronger in the score's low stretches when she's fully recuperated. At any rate, there's nothing wrong right now with the sustained final note she hits at the end of the swinging "Swing" -- a note that her adored predecessor could only dream about reaching.

Donna Murphy and Gregg Edelman in Wonderful Town(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Donna Murphy and Gregg Edelman in Wonderful Town
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
As the matter-of-fact Sherwood, two-time Tony Award winner Murphy is so likeably in charge that she'll probably turn the heads of reviewers who have considered her work in recent musicals a step back from her force-of-nature stint in Song of Singapore several years ago. When she submerged herself in the gloomy Fosca for Passion, she couldn't really be faulted; what else could she have done with that trying Stephen Sondheim score? But Murphy's mirthless Anna in The King and I may have had observers wondering if she'd begun to take her art so seriously that the nimble-minded Ruth would elude her. However, when Murphy headlined Wonderful Town for the Encores! series three years ago, however, it was obivious that there was no problem, and she confirms her mastery now.

Superb as she is, Murphy is no more than the brigtest light in a show that boasts plenty. First there are the songs, many of which seem both random and inevitable. (Did reporter Ruth McKenney really have to greet a Brazilian training ship full of eager seamen or did Bernstein, Comden and Green just think that the dizzying "Conga!" would be fun?) In a score that was thought in 1953 to be worthy but lesser Bernstein, the love songs are lovely and direct, the comedy turns amusing. Getting the revival on its fleet feet, director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall keeps everything George-Abbott snappy and dreams up thoroughly charming interludes. Trucking gestures are prominent in her choreography, although the best number may be the policemen's jig in "My Darlin' Eileen."

In moving this bright tuner from the Encores! stage to the stage of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (formerly the Martin Beck), Marshall and producers have taken the Chicago transfer approach with only some elaboration. John Lee Beatty has added a semi-realistic below-pavement-level Christopher Street apartment along with skyscraper backdrops behind Fisher's 24-piece on-stage orchestra. Martin Pakledinaz has rounded up slews of perky, period-style costumes -- there's at least one zoot suit here, and a fab, slip-like dress for Murphy when she does "The Wrong-Note Rag." Peter Kaczorowski's lights fill in Manhattan's jazzy chiaroscuro when Beatty doesn't and Lew Mead has designed the sound so that every word is loud and clear or, when needed, soft and clear.

Jennifer Westfeldt's breezy Eileen explains why all the boys are drawn to her. Raymond Jaramillo McLeod, who's probably waiting for the next L'il Abner reprise, is bluff but gentle as the football-playing Wreck. Tousled redhead Nancy Anderson is a bundle of energy as Wreck's intended, although having someone on stage with as lusty as voice as hers and not finding much for her to sing is something of a waste. David Margulies is his usual pro self as Appopolous, while Peter Benson is earnest and winning as Eileen's most persistent suitor. Gregg Edelman, who's also got the keys-too-low problem, goes admirably goofy when he sings "It's Love" but seems somewhat bland before and after that number.

The cast of Wonderful Town(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
The cast of Wonderful Town
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Wonderful Town dates from a time when the term "musical comedy" was perfectly respectable -- a time before musicals, which naturally had to evolve, began to cover any exposed comedy with a fig leaf so as to seem important. Indeed, the show is one of the last quality examples of the genre; although its score was written in a month, it was expertly soldered together by the most skilled Broadway carpenters. Aside from the sly musical tricks that Leonard Bernstein pulled off so that ostensibly ordinary melodies aren't ordinary at all, the piece was nothing more nor less than a slick diversion. Look, it's set in a '30s free of politics and Depression depression.

So, aside from this production's super elements, what accounts for the straightforward appeal of Wonderful Town? Is it simply that it was written in a more innocent decade than our own and set in an even more innocent decade? Does it look and feel decidedly engaging if sweetly dated now because, in a season of bloated musicals, the certainty of its craft is enviable? Does the show stand out as a thoroughly delightful pastime because its characters, hardly elitist, express themselves with wit, warmth, and sophisticated simplicity? Whatever the answers to these questions, the fact is Donna Murphy and colleagues are in a new-fashioned, old-fangled hit.