Wonderful Town, which was for many years all but invisible, has been very much back in circulation of late. EMI recorded a restored version of the score back in 1998, under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, featuring Kim Criswell, Audra McDonald, Thomas Hampson and Brent Barrett. City Center Encores! presented a highly successful concert version of the show in 2000, starring Donna Murphy and Laura Benanti. Rattle and his 1998 stars presented a New Year's Eve concert version of the show, with the Berliner Philharmoniker, to ring in 2003. An expanded version of the Encores production, with Murphy but not Benanti, made it to the Hirschfeld 11 months later, with mixed results. Now EuroArts has put the Berlin New Year's Eve concert on DVD.
Wonderful Town rises or falls on the strength of its Ruth Sherwood. I start this report by confessing that for whatever reasons, Ms. Criswell has never quite amused me, back since I first noticed her in Baby. Her performance on the Wonderful Town CD (and, now, the DVD) has not swayed me, which understandably leaves a hole in my potential appreciation of any version of Wonderful Town. Ms. McDonald has just about always had an opposite effect on this reviewer. However, Eileen is nothing if not a supporting role, usually played by up-and-coming musical comedy performers. Put in Audra McDonald, with a shelf full of well-earned Tony Awards, and things are somewhat lopsided. McDonald doesn't really have anything suitable to do here. Sure, she can sing the role of the ingenue; but this is like watching Jason Robards play Charley, the funeral orator, in Death of a Salesman. He'd be very good in the role, no doubt, but I expect we might forget about that Willy Loman fellow.
The male roles have never been especially rewarding. Thomas Hampson plays the stick-of-a-magazine-editor Baker, while the always-reliable Brent Barrett takes on most all the other principal male roles. If you wish Wonderful Town on DVD, here's the (only) DVD for you. Meanwhile, the antique 1958 telecast, with Rosalind Russell recreating her original role, is in bootleg circulation. While primitively filmed, it is perhaps the best existing version. Let us hope that somebody, someday, will find a way to untie the many layers of legal barriers and release it commercially.
ON A MORE ELEGANTLY COMIC NOTE
Nick and Nora Charles, now there's a couple for you. The Thin Man (1934) was one of those unheralded films that the public chose to embrace, resulting in five sequels and enduring stardom for the two versatile and accomplished actors who created said roles. William Powell and Myrna Loy are pretty much delectable, as is their canine co-star, Asta. Seventy years later, New York pre-World War II upper-crust sophistication is still embodied by Nick and Nora, with evening clothes and cocktail shaker at the ready.
It was inevitable that musical comedy should get around to The Thin Man. Arthur Laurents, Charles Strouse and Richard Maltby gave it a try in 1991, finding that the hoped-for magic was embedded in celluloid. (It didn't help that Laurents came up with his own take on the material, publicly expressing little love for the original.) Nick & Nora, as they called it, was one of Broadway's bigger musical disasters of its time; a shame, really, as there were some very nice things — remember murder-victim Faith Prince being log-rolled downstage to the apron, again and again, in flashback? — and some very interesting work from Mr. Strouse.
But we still have the original Nick and Nora, and Warner Home Entertainment has seen fit to present the six Thin Man movies in a pristine new box set. Added is a seventh disc, Alias Nick and Nora, with documentaries on Powell and Loy. Each DVD is packed with extras, including short subjects, cartoons and trailers. (Of special note are two Robert Benchley shorts, "How to Be a Detective" and "Why Daddy?")
The Thin Man sequels, for the record, were After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of The Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945) and Song of The Thin Man (1947). Truth be told, the first two entries are considerably superior to the others; at some point, the series turned mighty formulaic. However, Nick and Nora — or, rather, Bill and Myrna — are always in their prime.
The films are also laced with some fine supporting players, led by the redoubtable Sam Levene as Lieutenant Abrams. (Levene had just made it to Hollywood with his transplanted Broadway hit, Three Men on a Horse.) Other people to catch are the young James Stewart, Donna Reed and Barry Nelson; Teddy Hart — Larry's brother, just before he turned to The Boys from Syracuse; Patricia Morrison, just before Kiss Me, Kate; and even Stella Adler, with a showy turn in Shadow of The Thin Man. Nora — in Dashiell Hammett's original novel The Thin Man — was apparently patterned after playwright Lillian Hellman. I don't expect, though, that too many folks will confuse Lillian and Myrna.
Warner Home has also seen fit to celebrate the current Broadway season by issuing The Mambo Kings on CD. It is reassuring to see that Hollywood keeps track of goings-on in little old New York; as it happens, though, the show shuttered in San Francisco and that appears to be the end of it There will be no Mambo Kings in town this year. Unless you pick up a copy of the DVD, that is. —Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.