In 1953, the A-Team of Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein were called in at the last minute to play doctor to a musical being tailored for Rosalind Russell’s return to the stage, drawn from an autobiographical book about a pair of Ohio sisters who move to New York and enjoy a microscopic dramatic arc. Bernstein wrote volumes of brilliant dance music for the show, following the oeuvre of the time when dance didn’t further the plot. He and lyricists Comden and Green penned a handful of songs, two-and-a-half of which are super and reprised them ad infinitum. That this show won five Tony Awards demonstrates how much the state of lyric theater has changed.
Director Mary Zimmerman transfers the story from the thirties to the fifties and in doing so makes it far less believable that these Ohioans could be so naïve. Todd Rosenthal’s Dollar Stores sets, small flats painted to look like miniature buildings, are moved about by the actors to make Zimmerman’s ubiquitous pictures.
Unhappily, it doesn’t work; they quickly became mind-numbingly boring. Alex Sanchez’s choreography is a little bit Fosse and is as repetitive as jazzercise. In visual concept and physical movement this show reads more sixties minimalist. It would have been more successful if played as a historical document.
Despite this, you MUST see this show. The Chicago performers (not imported actors) take this fable to heart and then toss it fearlessly to the audience. Given the nearly impossible task of essaying a role written specifically for an icon, Bri Sudia lands every Russell-esque zinger yet makes the part her own. Lauren Molina plays a fine line between precocity and man-predator, succeeding brilliantly.
Karl Hamilton is wonderful as the anti-leading man who discovers, through song, that he is in love. We completely believe him and it is essential that we do because that’s pretty much the entire plot. His opera/Broadway voice warms. Chameleon-actor Steven Strafford provides a slime-ball with a heart of gold and Wade Elkins’ drugstore clerk charms with winning habit-twitches. George Andrew Wolff adds his golden tenorial vocals and Goodman scores! (Aaron Hunt)
Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, (312)443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $25-$93. Now extended through October 23.