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A Little Bit in Love

Matthew Murray reviews DRG's cast recording of the Broadway revival of the Bernstein-Comden-Green musical Wonderful Town. logo
The Broadway revival of the 1953 musical Wonderful Town -- with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and a book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov -- remains a bright spot in what has otherwise been a notably lackluster musical season. It would be nice to be able to say that the cast recording of the production captures everything that makes the show a must-see, but that's not the case. Unlike the recordings of Little Shop of Horrors and The Boy From Oz, which make those shows sound much better than they actually are, the Wonderful Town album has a high standard to live up to -- one that it doesn't quite reach. Still, fans of the revival will no doubt want to own the CD.

Can one have too many recordings of this classic, immensely enjoyable score? The answer is an emphatic "no" given this production's above-the-title star, Donna Murphy. A unique combination of earthiness, elegance, good old-fashioned charisma, and an excellent singing voice makes Murphy just about the best imaginable choice for the role of Ruth Sherwood, the Ohio-born writer who comes to live in New York City with her sister Eileen (Jennifer Westfeldt). Though Ruth starts out as a talented but unfulfilled writer who's unlucky in love, she soon becomes a Greenwich Village sophisticate with the confidence to win the job and the man she wants.

Murphy's ability to capture this journey on the recording is remarkable; the vastly different character facets she displays in "Ohio," "One Hundred Easy Ways," and the "Conga!" number are impressive enough but even more so when taken in tandem with her performance of "Swing," in which she affects a vocal style very different from what was called for by her roles in Passion and The King and I. And in the "Wrong Note Rag," she exhibits magnetic star presence. While she doesn't replace the original Ruth, Rosalind Russell, Murphy is almost perfect and completely enjoyable throughout the recording.

The same can't be said of Gregg Edelman, who is terrific when well cast but who never sounds quite right as magazine editor Robert Baker. His voice lacks consistency and it sounds like he's always singing at 85% of full strength. In fact, supporting performers Ken Barnett and Ray Wills out-sing Edelman in his establishing number, "What a Waste." And his performance of "It's Love," which should be his big opportunity to let loose, is thin and underwhelming. Onstage, Edelman fills out his character in other ways that make his vocal miscasting less of an issue; on disc, he only really hits the mark in "A Quiet Girl," one of the softest and most contemplative songs in the score.

Other than Murphy, Raymond Jaramillo McLeod is the sole holdover from the 2000 Encores! concert that spawned this production; he has lots of fun with the Wreck's solo, "Pass the Football." The ensemble numbers, particularly the "Christopher Street" opener, are very lively on the CD. As Eileen, Westfeldt is pretty successful overall; she sounds very good in "My Darlin' Eileen," in her warm rendition of "A Little Bit In Love," and in her sly, knowing take on "It's Love." Other numbers reveal the one problem with her casting: She lacks the high soprano notes that the role requires. It's not much of a problem in "Ohio," which she sings with Murphy (their harmony work is heavenly), but Eileen's rangy notes in "Conversation Piece" -- even transposed downward -- don't sound completely right as Westfeldt sings them.

That track is problematic for another reason. When the conversation between five people finally breaks down, the number doesn't become scattered and frantic; rather, the tempo slows to the point where it seems interminable. This is the only place where musical director Rob Fisher lets the recording down; the rest of the time -- particularly during the overture and the two ballets, "Conquering the City" and "Ballet at the Village Vortex" -- the orchestra sounds fantastic if occasionally a tad thin. (Whether this is due to the orchestra's size -- huge by current Broadway standards but reduced from the original number of players -- is not clear.)

There are two bonus tracks included: a medley of "Ohio," "It's Love," and "A Quiet Girl" plus a rendition of "Wrong Note Rag," all performed by Betty Comden and Adolph Green with great energy, spirit, and humor. But as the disc runs just under 70 minutes (with the bonus tracks), one can't help but wish that more musical material from the show as performed in the revival had been included. The omission of Ruth's "A Quiet Girl" reprise and the hilarious "Ruth's Story Vignettes" is unfortunate. The CD booklet is lovely but could have done with a bit more proofreading; there are a number of typos, including the misspelling of Westfeldt's name in the story synopsis.

This disc is set for release on Tuesday, March 9. While the flaws noted above prevent it from being ideal, it's well worth a listen for fans of Wonderful Town and/or the luminous Donna Murphy.

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