Brooke Shields confidently steps into 'Wonderful Town'

Monday, October 18, 2004

NEW YORK -- Who knew that the opening of a sofa bed could be the key that unlocks an audience's affection -- and gets them foursquare on the side of one Broadway musical's new leading lady?

It doesn't take long. Maybe 15 minutes or so into the revival of "Wonderful Town" when Brooke Shields, as would-be writer Ruth Sherwood, battles a recalcitrant couch in a dumpy Greenwich Village apartment.

Shields straddles the sofa, pulling and tugging in a bit of comic business that recalls the great Lucille Ball at her most physically hilarious. In fact, the leggy Shields, with her angular profile and her hair a mass of red curls, looks a lot like Ball -- with a touch of Olive Oyl thrown in for good measure.

So what if Shields may be way too pretty to play the plain-Jane Ruth, the sister who never gets the man, or that her pipes have limited range. Rosalind Russell, the show's original star in 1953, didn't have much of a singing voice and wowed theatergoers anyway.

Shields may not be in that league, but she's a game gal, giving her all for a production that has had a rough time during the past several months. The repeated absences of the revival's vocally ailing Donna Murphy took a toll at the box office. Shields' arrival is just the tonic "Wonderful Town" needs.

And judging from the show's Saturday matinee at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, the production, which grew out of a City Center concert version, is in tiptop shape. Musically, it still has the most buoyant score on Broadway. Leonard Bernstein's music, played by a superb on-stage orchestra, never sounded fresher. And the lyrics of Betty Comden and Adolph Green remain as sturdy as ever -- witty and to the point when brash is required; direct and heartfelt when a song turns to romance.

The book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, tweaked here by David Ives, is the essence of American musical comedy. The Depression-era tale, based on their hit play "My Sister Eileen," exudes a sunny spunkiness -- two young women from Ohio brave the big city, in this case, New York, seeking fame and fortune. Love, or at least the possibility of love, is never very far out of reach.

Older sister Ruth is protective of her younger sibling, the blond Eileen, who attracts men with nothing more than a smile and a song. Jennifer Hope Wills, also a new addition to the cast, has the young woman's sweetness down pat.

Shields has other opportunities to display her comic skills, whether doing the conga with a group of over-zealous Brazilian naval cadets, scatting the joys of "an advanced nightclub" called the Village Vortex or enumerating "100 Easy Ways (to Lose a Man)."

As the magazine editor who falls for Eileen and then for Ruth, Gregg Edelman is looser and more limber than when the show opened last November -- and a lot more fun. He seems to have found the character's sense of humor.

There are some marvelous character turns, too: Peter Benson, as a hilariously naive soda jerk, Michael McGrath as a stereotypical hard-boiled reporter and Raymond Jaramillo McLeod as a dumb football star, a ramblin' wreck from Trenton (not Georgia) Tech.

Director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall's dance numbers are a potent reminder of why she won the Tony Award this year for best choreography. Her dancers become characters in the show, telling stories of their own. In the "Conquering New York" sequence, for example, they succinctly suggest the city's frantic pace and grinding down of its ever-striving inhabitants.

And watch for the finale, as Shields and Wills, dressed in bright red by costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, and the entire cast jauntily work their way through the "Wrong Note Rag," Bernstein's clever celebration of the off-key.

Besides "Wonderful Town," Shields has now replaced other performers in such disparate Broadway revivals as "Grease" and "Cabaret." She has paid her dues. Isn't it about time the woman is allowed to star in a new show of her own?

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