Reviewed by Claudia Perry
Based on the hit play "The Front Page" by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, "Windy City" has blown into the Walnut Street Theatre until October 22nd . Over the years "The Front Page" has had many incarnations from its original 1928 Broadway production to the 1940 film "His Girl Friday", starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, (In this version, director Howard Hawks had the Walter Burns role rewritten for a woman and played by Rosalind Russell.) to the 1974 Billy Wilder movie, "The Front Page", with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon. In 1982 "Windy City" premiered in London's West End.
Hildy Johnson, hard bitten reporter for the Chicago Examiner, has a new fiance and wants to start a new life writing for the movie business. But first he has to leave his scheming editor, Walter Burns. On Hildy's day of departure, convicted murderer Earl Williams escapes from police custody and lands right in the Examiner's Press Room. Hildy puts off his fiance and works feverishly to scoop this one last sensational story before boarding the train for the West Coast.
For this particular revised production, composer Tony Macaulay was on hand at all rehearsals to help with the creative process. Mr. Macaulay is best known as a popular songwriter having sold 52 million records worldwide. His most famous songs being "Build Me Up, Buttercup", "Don't Give Up On Us Baby" and "Love Grows" (Where My Rosemary Goes)
The score for "Windy City" is quite melodic and likable. Mr. Macaulay knows how to write good tunes, a standout being, "Wait Till I Get You On Your Own". Unfortunately, most of the songs don't sound as if they come from 1929, when the play is supposed to take place except for "Water Under the Bridge" which has a great bluesy feel. Perhaps with more authentic arrangements and a "Vaudeville" orchestra (which is what was popular in the 1920's -- a real piano, bass, drums, trumpet, saxophone and violin) this is easily fixed. Apparently, there were three keyboards in the pit which tended to drown out the horns giving the score a modern feel.
The book by Dick Vosburgh sticks to the original play with only a few exceptions. It has a lot of grit and a lot of great laugh lines. But many times it drops the ball for yet another unnecessary group number. We only need to see one chorus number with the crusty newsmen of the Chicago Examiner to establish who they are and where we are. Or, we need to see Hildy singing with the boys in the press room. Because what we really need to see is more of Hildy on stage. He's our leading man; we like him and we want to see more of him. Again, this is something that is easily fixed for on the whole the play and the evening eventually come together in a satisfying way.
Although the choreography is delightful, Director/Choreographer Marc Robin makes some choices that are puzzling. If Hildy is indeed the kingpin of reporters, the top dog, as it were, then why does he enter the scene in a white suit (looking like a Hollywood movie star and not a grungy reporter) and proceed to dance on the press desk making him look more like Fred Astaire and less like say, William Powell? Just because David Elder (who is terrific as Hildy) is a great dancer and can do crowd pleasing chair tricks is no reason to give him a number that completely undermines his character. Later on in the play we'd be perfectly willing to accept Hildy dancing with his fiance, or breaking out into an eleventh hour dance of despair in his jail cell. But the contrast between Mr. Elder's "Tommy Tune turn" and the chorus of reporters who aren't dancers is just too drastic. Mr. Elder has to be surrounded by reporters who really dance to come up to his level or he has to cool his heels and hang with the guys. It all depends on which way the creative team wants "Windy City" to go -- as a dance show a la "Dames at Sea" -- or as a more down to earth musical saga a la "Guys and Dolls".
Also from a writing standpoint there seem to be some missed opportunities. In the second act we have a song sung by Bensinger, a completely minor character, which though very funny, stalls the plot. On the other hand we have Earl Williams, the escaped prisoner who is vital to the story who never gets to sing a note. And there are so many places to let Earl sing. He could sing when he's on the lamb from the law or he could even sing when he's trapped inside the desk. (In the magic of the theatre the desk could remain closed, but the set could be turned around to the audience.) Giving Earl a song could still be a comic moment - but it would be sung by a character we care about.
As Maury Yeston said in one of his sessions at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, "Everyone is going to tell you how to rewrite your show, even the doorman!" So pay no never mind to me. But the fact that I can see all these possibilities means that this show is a worthy one with a lot of potential. But let's get back to Mr. Elder, our Hildy.
David Elder is a tall, handsome performer with a great voice and exceptional dancing ability. He is a very grounded, natural actor which wins over the audience immediately. He also possesses the right amount of charm and charisma to make him a great leading man who can really drive a show. (He just needs to be in the driver's seat more often). Paul Schoeffler has a commanding voice and presence as the slave driving Managing Editor of the Chicago Examiner, Walter Burns. Since Burns is the second largest role in the show, it remains a mystery to me why they chose to put this character in the dark in his first two scenes. Though Cristin Boyle (Natalie) is a tall, pretty woman with a lovely voice, she possesses no craft as an actress and therefore we end up hating her character. This is a shame because she gets to sing the potentially show stopping number, "Red Hot Honey Like Me". On the other hand Denise Whelan wins over our hearts with her plaintive songs, "He Never Even Touched Me" and "I Can Talk to You" as Molly Malloy, the hooker with the heart of gold. Not only does Ms. Whelan possess a great vocal instrument, but she's so firmly rooted in her character that when she sings the notes come from the tips of her toes and progress to the top of her fiery red hair in one connected line of energy. This energy shoots out into the audience and makes us feel something for Molly Malloy. We feel pity for this potentially comic character. We find her touching and tragic - and these are wonderful moments in the show. As the quirky, mealy mouthed Earl Williams, Keith Gerchak is simply perfect, garnering a lot of laughs. The ten reporters in the ensemble were all very good. Of particular note were Curt Dale Clark as the jovial McCue, Peter Schmitz as the comically fey Bensinger and Jeffrey Coon as the nasty, gum chewing Endicott.
Though the costumes are colorful, they do not look accurate for the period. In the opening number when the reporters came out wearing modern cut suits, I thought the authors had updated the time period to modern day. When somebody finally mentioned that it was 1929, I was still confused as men did not wear colored dress shirts in the twenties. They wore white shirts, some even with stiff collars. "But it's a musical!" you say, and "License must be taken!" Yes, but if we have no point of reference, it makes it hard for the audience who are seeing the show for the first time and doesn't have a clue as to what era we are in. This, compounded with the facts that the date was not announced until later in the show and that the musical arrangements sounded as if they were from the 70's or the 80's, made it impossible for the audience to get its bearings. Though Burns and Hildy's suits were correct as were most of the women's outfits, there seemed to be no uniform concept to bring the entire costume plot together.
But the devil is in the details and these can all be corrected the next time around. As for right now, I'm sure that most people will be entertained by this show in its current version. It's been mentioned that potential producers are coming in from New York to see if this show has "legs" and will move on. With some minor sprucing up i.e., better costumes and arrangements and a little editing (less group numbers/more Hildy) there's no doubt that this is a show that will have another life. In its day "The Front Page" was a hit show and it probably has one of the best closing lines of any comedy. In his final devious attempt to keep Hildy working for the Examiner, Editor Burns calls the Chicago police and screams for them to stop the California bound train that Hildy and his fiance are on and have Hildy arrested. "Why? Because the son of a bitch stole my watch!"