Abigail has worked as an actor/director in Chicago for over ten years, and along with husband Jason Epperson founded Lotus Theatricals in 2015, and PerformInk Chicago and Kansas City in 2016 (where she serves as Managing Editor of both publications). When not talking shop, Abigail is raising three padawans with Jason, drinking lots of coffee, converting school buses into RV's, and eating all the foods at Disney World. You can find her on Twitter @AbigailTrabue
(l-r) Jordan Brown (Wreck), Kristin Villanueva (Helen), Bri Sudia (Ruth) and Lauren Molina (Eileen). Photo by Liz Lauren.
WONDERFUL TOWN, now playing at the Goodman Theatre, is the quintessential example of the traditional musical. Big chorus numbers, a simple, but heartfelt plot, and an ending that wraps up suddenly and perfectly in a second act that is considerably shorter than the first. I genuinely love and thrill at seeing Golden Age tuners on a stage like the Goodman’s, and this production does not disappoint.
From the moment you walk into the theater and hear the 18 piece orchestra warming up and see the scrim with a sketched city outline hiding the world behind it, you know you’re in for something familiar, and potentially new at the same time. Without realizing it, I found myself staring at the scrim for some time wondering if the city outline had been hand drawn, and marveling at the hasty, but incredibly deliberate way it was sketched (this was the beginning of a 2.5 hour love affair between the set and I, though neither of us knew it at the time). I left the evening re-assured in set designer Todd Rosenthal’s status as a complete genius. The slowly moving clouds, the “taxi cabs” the apartment that lifted up out of the floor, the airplanes, all genius, all fun and all so natural to the world, stealing focuses at the right moments. The transformation to the Brooklyn Navy Yard drew applause from the audience—that’s how much of its own living breathing character Rosenthal’s set is.
But the set isn’t the only part of WONDERFUL TOWN that has the incredible breath about it. Mary Zimmerman has taken a musical that is 63 years old and made it feel fresh, relevant, and yet traditional and respectful to the era. There are a few places in the script that come across as outdated or stereotypical, especially in regards to gender, but Zimmerman handles those with a subtle punch. She doesn’t gloss over them, rather, she plays them for what they are—reality of the 1950’s. But (and this is a big but) she has also found a way to make all these people accessible to a modern audience, particularly a modern female audience. For example, are our protagonist Ruth Sherwood’s struggles to be taken seriously as a female writer—or to find a relationship of equality that goes beyond outward appearances—so different than the struggles woman face today? Or how we view our self-worth based on our looks? And while this may be a heavy-handed example, heavy WONDERFUL TOWN is not. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and filled to the brim with musical theater talent. In Bri Sudia, Zimmerman has found a Ruth who feels young, modern and unbelievably likable. Sudia commands the stage, her comedic timing is flawless, and she’s about as open and giving as an actor can be. Karl Hamilton (Robert Baker) made “A Quiet Girl”, my least favorite song in the show, into a moment that allowed me to hear and understand Baker in a way I hadn’t before. He got Baker, and then I got Baker. It was a lovely journey to watch. Lauren Molina’s Eileen Sherwood is cute, funny, loveable— you can’t help but adore her. Molina found a nice balance with Eileen, playing those moments of strength perfectly, allowing Eileen some depth and dimension.
Surrounding Sudia, Hamilton, and Molina were 23 other actors who at one time or another stole the show and delighted me with their humor and their heart. To see these big chorus numbers sung with such clarity and to see so many real dancers on a Chicago musical theater stage is thrilling. Lifts and turns and solid technique from the 8 trained dancers in the “Ballet at the Village Vortex” was the cherry on my already piled high WONDERFUL TOWN sundae.
I cannot think of one thing I didn’t enjoy. Ana Kuzmanic is a costuming goddess, Alex Sanchez’s choreography was a delightful tribute to the variety the early 50’s offered us, and the music—beautifully sung and expertly played. Leonard Bernstein’s rhythms, his ability to find just the right balance to convey just the right message is pure magic. Add in the whip-smart lyrics of Betty Comden and Adolph Green and you’ve got one hell of a musical trio. Music Director Doug Peck pays incredible tribute to their work that would rival any major Broadway production.
It is not often I gush over a musical from start to finish, but WONDERFUL TOWN is worthy of the earned praise. It’s a grand addition to the fall theater season. If you see no other show, see this one.