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Published: Thursday, 4/12/2007

Two sisters conquer the big city

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
'My Darlin' Eileen' dance scene from <i> Wonderful Town.</i> 'My Darlin' Eileen' dance scene from <i> Wonderful Town.</i>
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The route from northwest Ohio to a touring Broadway show took Allison Berry to Florida, East Lansing, Mich., Tokyo, and New York.

But she says she s still a small-town girl at heart.

Berry stars in Wonderful Town, which comes to the Valentine Theatre Saturday, and she discussed her past and the show in a telephone interview last week from Syracuse, where she was performing.

I was born and raised in Defiance, Ohio. I lived there until I was 14, she said. My father was a surgeon and was a founder of the Defiance Clinic, and when he retired in 94 we moved. My Dad is in Florida now, my Mom is in Michigan, and that s where I spend my time when I m not living in New York. But, my roots I lived the most years of my life in Defiance and still think of it as home.

Berry plays Eileen Sherwood in the musical based on Ruth McKenney s stories for the New Yorker, which became a play and a movie called My Sister Eileen.

The story, she said, has two major components: the relationship between sisters Ruth and Eileen and their relationship with the city of New York.

Deborah Lynn Deborah Lynn
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The sisters have dreams. Ruth wants to be a writer, and Eileen wants to be an actress. So they pack their bags and move from Columbus to New York, where, Berry said, they are rudely awakened by the craziness of the city.

For instance, within the first five minutes of being in their apartment, they realize that the new subway system is being built right under the building, and construction crews are blasting dynamite for the tunnels all hours of the day or night.

My character, Eileen, is the blonde bombshell. Everything comes very easily to her because men are extremely attracted to her. And because of that, she has always had a very easy time getting what she wants, Berry says.

Eileen uses that attraction to help Ruth get a job. Even though the two girls couldn t be more opposite, Berry said, they work well as a team. Each always has her sister s best interests at heart as they set out to conquer the city.

Ruth is played by Deborah Lynn, whom Berry called fabulous.

We met at the audition and we clicked instantly. We read together a few times and it went well, and I just remember thinking, Boy I hope if I get it, she gets it, because in my mind she was absolutely the best.

Sure enough, on the first day of rehearsals, we ran into each other on the sidewalk outside of the rehearsal building and we just stopped and started screaming and hugging. True story. And we ve had a great time together.

Allison Berry Allison Berry
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Berry, who is 27, said she went to high school in North Palm Beach, Fla., then headed to Michigan State University and earned a bachelor of music degree. Yes, I m a Spartan, much to the dismay of my father, who was a Wolverine. My older sister went to Ohio State, so we kind of got him from both ends there.

After studying voice and classical music at MSU, Berry headed to graduate school at New York University, where she got a master s degree in voice, then stayed another year to earn an artist s diploma in musical theater.

After working at the Schoolhouse Theater in Florida, she headed to Japan for a six-month stint at Tokyo Disney, where she sang in one of the stage shows. That ended when she got her current job.

Wonderful Town has some stellar roots.

As My Sister Eileen, the play written by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, it ran for more than two years on Broadway during World War II, and, according to Gerald Bordman and Thomas Hischak s book The Oxford Companion to American Theatre, the New York Post called it the giddiest delight to be seen hereabouts since You Can t Take It With You.

Fields and Chodorov later reworked the play into a musical, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It ran on Broadway for another 17 months, winning five Tony Awards in 1953, including best musical. Kathleen Marshall s 2003 Broadway revival earned five Tony nominations and one award.

If there s any one problem with the show, it s the dialogue, Berry said.

The dialogue is dated, and the Leonard Bernstein score, even though it s absolutely gorgeous and just legitimate musical theater to a T, it s not the kind of pop dynamic that s so popular today in musicals such as Hairspray and even Mamma Mia!

From my experience, everyone who comes to see it leaves saying, Why haven t we heard about this musical before, because it s not done a lot. It s never toured, and we are really enjoying watching people embrace it.

There are some updates, Berry said. When Kathy Marshall staged it for the revival a few years ago, she really made it quite impressive. It has vibrant colors in the sets and costumes, with an almost modern feel to it. But it still captures the time period of the 30s and the style that it was written in the 50s.

I always say it s definitely a show for all ages. Older crowds will appreciate the dialogue and the time period. But the sets are so colorful and the dancing numbers are so extraordinary that younger children will really love it.

Berry s hoping the show is a real crowd-pleaser at the Valentine, especially because she s expecting some friends and relatives to be there, listing an aunt and uncle, a brother and his family, and some nieces and nephews, who still live in northwest Ohio.

I m hoping that there will be quite a Defiance following.

Wonderful Town is scheduled at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Valentine Theatre, 400 North Superior St. Tickets are $38, $51, and $61. Information: 419-242-2787.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.com or 419-724-6130.



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