Because she was blacklisted in the 1950s, the novelist Ruth McKenney isn’t as well-known today as she should be. Yet her New Yorker stories about the misadventures of her innocent-bombshell sister Eileen, whose beauty could turn any man into a walking blend of Sir Galahad and the Guggenheim Foundation, have lodged in the public mind as a prototype New York myth. Dramatized, filmed, televised, and twice musicalized, McKenney’s puckish legend of Midwestern sibs who conquer the vagaries of 1930s Greenwich Village conceals the seeds of two tragedies, her own repudiation by a country that still can’t tolerate dissent (she spent her later years in England), and her sister’s shocking early death. The real-life Eileen McKenney married the novelist Nathanael West, and was killed with him in a car crash on their honeymoon.
Wonderful Town, Broadway’s 1953 musical recycling of the myth, was built around Rosalind Russell, who had played Ruth in the 1940 film version. Its current revival sustains just enough of the original appeal to remind you how much better Broadway did things back then. The score may not be top-drawer Leonard Bernstein, but his second drawer towers over most of today’s songwriters’ desks. Kathleen Marshall’s direction catches some but not all of the jokes (her one bull’s-eye is “My Darlin’ Eileen”); Martin Pakledinaz’s attractive pastel costumes convey period but not much individuality; appealing performers like Gregg Edelman and Jennifer Westfeldt don’t quite have the voices their music demands. Most paradoxical is the star, Donna Murphy, who excels in song and dance—precisely the areas where the show’s built around Russell’s appealing awkwardness as a novice. Her help-lessness was the funny part; Murphy, though delightful, seems about as helpless as Dolly Levi.