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Finding a ‘wonderful town’

BY JOSIE JONES | FEBRUARY 18, 2010 7:30 AM

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Lauren Baker has bruised knees. Playing the humorous main character of Ruth in Iowa City Community Theatre’s production of Wonderful Town requires her to fall down a lot. While her role also entails singing and dancing — talents that she possesses — she understood the struggle it took to get into character.

“At first I wasn’t sure if [the role] was going to be right for me,” she said. “But, boy, am I this character. It’s kind of weird how similar we are. Seeing stuff come together as a whole has really helped me go from understanding it to living it.”

Wonderful Town will grace the stage today at the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St. The musical will continue through Feb. 21 with Thursday through Saturday shows at 8 p.m. and the Feb. 21 show at 2:30 p.m. Admission ranges from $10 to $17.

Wonderful Town is a contrasting piece that follows the story of two sisters from Ohio who move to Greenwich Village in hopes of making it big during the Great Depression. Ruth is an aspiring writer who can’t keep a man’s attention. Eileen is a beautiful actor and dancer who has men falling at her feet — even Irish policemen. The sisters experience the Big Apple, learning different lessons along the way.

The musical production almost didn’t come to fruition in Iowa City. On Nov. 5, 2009, director Ben Bentler received a phone call from Community Theatre telling him it was going to cancel the show for financial reasons. But because Bentler had worked on the play since the summer, he wasn’t going to let the lack of money dampen his passion.

With help from music director Ed Kottick and choreographer Jill Beardsley, they raised $11,000 for the show. The donations had a large base — both local community members and businesses contributed.

“This is a show we really wanted to do,” Kottick said. “So when they told us they were going to cut it, we were quite disappointed. We figured if [raising money was] the only way we could do it, let’s go out and do it.”

Because the majority of the funds for the show were donated and all production costs have been met, the show costs the 55-year-old Community Theatre practically nothing. When rehearsal began on Jan. 3, the musical was monetarily secure, allowing the theater to present an “amazing show that no one has really heard of” in comparison with other Leonard Bernstein works, such as West Side Story, Bentler said.

Bentler views the musical with a different perspective from other directors.

“Most directors are actors first,” he said. “I’m a musician first. The way I look at it is, ‘How do we go from the song to the scene,’ not the normal way, from scene to song.”

Because he comes from a musical background, seeing Bernstein’s name on the script attracted him to the play. With a 29-piece orchestra, the songs range from a conga to an Irish jig are performed in Wonderful Town.

Baker was forced to experiment with another aspect of the music — she is naturally a soprano, but her character is required to sing as a tenor. She considers herself a singer first, and learning to sing the part allowed her to become the charcter of Ruth.

Even with the wide array of musical components, Baker feels Wonderful Town still flows well.

“Bernstein was a genius at putting together different styles of music and making them all mesh into one,” she said.

Because audiences were familiar with the music in 1953, when Wonderful Town first appeared, Bentler wondered at one point if it would turn younger generations away. That, he said, is why he directed the musical in a way that it would be funny for all audiences.

Feeling it is important to feature the musicians, he gave up half of the stage for a 4-foot platform on which the orchestra will play on. Because the Englert’s stage is small, the production team attached another stage to the front. Bentler hopes this will transform the Englert into a more intimate environment.

“My goal is to really make you feel like you’re part of the production from the minute you enter,” he said. “And I’m not afraid to break the fourth wall.”

Benter said the show is “insanely dance heavy,” which complements the music. The choreographers of Wonderful Town recently moved to Iowa City after professionally working with musical theater in Chicago. Bentler feels the choreography is brilliant — not like a show choir.

“It’s the best dancing I’ve seen in any community-theater production in this town,” he said.

Because of his love of the show, he motivated the cast of 29. He was challenged to work with varying levels of skill, ranging from high-school students and their parents to college students aspiring to become professionals to create an ensemble.

“This is probably the hardest I’ve ever pushed a cast,” he said. “I won’t take anything less than perfection.”

One aspect the director best enjoys about the show is that he can connect with the story. It reminds him of moving to Iowa City — and he believes others will have the same experience.

“A lot of folks around here came here, and this town works on you,” he said. “It changes you into a different person. People will be able to relate to it well.”


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