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Windy City

This musical version of The Front Page is only mildly entertaining, despite some terrific performances.

Cristin Boyle and David Elder in Windy City
(© Brett Thomas)
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's The Front Page is one of the 20th Century's most-interpreted tales. Originally penned for the stage in 1928, this story about journalism, romance, and murder, was resurrected in the hugely popular 1940 film His Girl Friday (starring Rosalind Russell and an impeccable Cary Grant) and again in 1974's cinematic treatment starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, not to mention numerous stage productions.

In 1982, a musical version of The Front Page, written by composer Tony Macaulay (best known for such pop compositions as "Build Me Up, Buttercup") and librettist/lyricist Dick Vosburgh, appeared in London's West End and captured a handful of awards. Now after years of inactivity, that show, Windy City, has reappeared in a newly revamped and only mildly entertaining production at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre.

Set in 1929 Chicago, the now familiar tale concerns ace reporter Hildebrand "Hildy" Johnson (David Elder), who is preparing to go to Hollywood with his glamorous fiancée Natalie (disappointing newcomer Cristin Boyle), whose father owns a movie studio. Hildy is anxious to put his journalistic talents to use as a screenwriter. But before he heads west, Hildy has one last interview to conduct with the mild-mannered anarchist Earl Williams (Keith Gerchak). Convicted of killing a police officer, Williams is scheduled to hang in the morning and Hildy's dictatorial editor Walter Evans (Paul Schoeffler) is anxiously awaiting this final article.

However, things aren't quite as simple as they initially appear. Not only does Evans have no intention of allowing his top reporter to leave town, but Hildy soon realizes he has newsprint in his veins. When Williams escapes from custody, Hildy (with some prodding from his coercive and conniving editor) discovers he can't turn his back on the scoop of the century. Adding to the main story are numerous subplots including a corrupt mayor who struts around in a Stetson (David Brummel), an inept sheriff (Stuart Zagnit), and a streetwalker with a heart of gold named Molly Malloy (Denise Whelan) who has struck up a friendship with the shy Williams.

The show's central conflict is that of a man torn between a woman and his work, but the musical spends too much focusing on the other storylines. In a failed attempt to give the musical a masculine, gritty feel, much of Act I focuses on the team of reporters assembled in the press room where Williams is jailed. The jaunty "The Day I Quit this Rag" establishes the reporters' wisecracking, blue-collar camaraderie, but Vosburgh's book includes an overabundance of jocular banter between the assembled reporters that soon grows tiresome. And while both Whelan and Gerchak are terrific, the relationship between Molly and Earl does little more than draw attention to the absence of an emotional bond between Hildy and the voluptuous but dull Natalie.

Luckily, the show improves in its far superior second act, which focuses on the cantankerous but symbiotic relationship between Burns and Hildy. There is genuine chemistry when Elder and Schoeffler share the stage. The duo's fondness for both each other and their jobs is revealed on the clever "I Can Just Imagine It," a number that provides the production with a much-needed spark. Other second act highlights include the witty "Bensinger's Poem," performed with considerable panache by the delightful Peter Schmitz, and the vaguely country-hued "Water Under the Bridge," which Elder sings with a plaintive sincerity.

Thanks to Marc Robin's admirable direction and supremely polished choreography, there is no shortage of razzle-dazzle in the Walnut's slick staging. But even though Robin is clearly a man of many talents, he can't bring the show entirely into focus. In the end, what should be a breezy musical comedy is done in by its own long-windedness.


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