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Wonderful Town Review

Joan Davies is thankful for The Halle Orchestra collaboration on this otherwise somewhat flat production

Written by . Published on April 5th 2012.

Wonderful Town Review

MANCHESTER is a wonderful city for collaborations, in the arts as well as in public policy and economic development.  Excitement has been mounting for some time at the news of a new collaboration.  Wonderful Town, a joint production by The Royal Exchange Theatre, The Halle Orchestra and The Lowry makes full use of The Lowry’s massive lyric auditorium to give a run of this rarely seen Leonard Bernstein musical, complete with a full orchestra.

The orchestra makes a real difference. 

An overture is a wonderful thing and  Wonderful Town’s overture was almost  magical, transporting us to New York, familiarising us with tunes we’ll hear later and signposting story elements. A hint of small town reminiscence, a large input of Irish ancestry, and jazz, cities, jazz, noise, jazz and change.  Plus taxis. I’ve never been to New York before but before this overture was complete I’d mentally booked my flight.

The show’s worth seeing, particularly during the first two weeks when The Halle provides the music, but I doubt many will put it on their favourites list.

Leonard Bernstein was an original, composing for stage and the classical concert hall.  Wonderful Town was written in 1953, in between his popular On The Town, where three sailors spend a day in New York, and his sensational West Side Story, where he collaborated with a young Stephen Sondheim.  The orchestral score is superb, The Halle’s performance, conducted by Sir Mark Elder giving it the wonderful treatment it deserves. 

Wonderful Town Photo by Alastair Muir

The story is familiar.  Two sisters leave small-town America to make their mark in New York.  Eileen, (Lucy van Gasse) is beautiful and in search of a stage career. Ruth (Connie Fisher) is clever and aspires to be a writer.  Will they make it or will New York destroy their dreams?  As it’s a musical there’s also the question of whether Ruth will find a man, despite being bright and fairly ordinary-looking.  As it’s a musical you can probably guess the answer before it starts.

The opening’s neat: a tour guide walks a party round Greenwich Village, giving everyone a glimpse of the colourful artistic community living there.  Ruth and Eileen arrive and rent an undesirable apartment from landlord Mr Appopolous before setting out to seek fame and fortune on a pretty limited budget.

Stage design by Simon Higlett makes full use of The Lowry’s height to create a New York basement and sidewalk.  Clever set design turns beds into a cramped subway.  Brilliant direction by Braham Murray and choreography by Andrew Wright and assistant Lucy James conveys the buzz, the excitement and the anonymity of New York life.  Costumes add colour, glamour and sheer wackiness as the script demands.

Wonderful Town Photo by Alastair Muir

There’s superb singing, particularly from Lucy van Gasse as Eileen and Michael Xavier as Bob Baker, magazine publisher and potential love interest.  Sevan Stephen as Mr Appopolous, Tiffany Graves as Helen and Nic Greenshields as Wreck Loomis also give strong performances in rather stereotypical supporting roles.

Connie Fisher’s clear delivery of Ruth’s less conventional songs helps distinguish the character from the average musical heroine, driving away men by employing her brain before her charms.   

However, Wonderful Town is very much less-performed than Bernstein’s On The Town or his stunning West Side Story, and maybe there’s good reason for that.  After the initial tight and colourful opening scenes the first act flags a little.  We can guess already what’s going to happen and some of the songs don’t quite come off.  When Ruth starts to sing ‘100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man’ we sincerely hope she’s not going to explain each one.  The act ends with the livelier ‘Congo’ sung and danced by Ruth and a team of Brazilian Navy Cadets.  It’s an audience-pleaser, but a long way from signposting the stunning artistry of a composer who within a few years would grab audiences with West Side Story’s ‘Mambo’.

The second act is much better, funny, ironic in parts and far better paced, though the ending, where of course Ruth gets her man and probably her publishing contract, is quite a rush.  The Irish song, ‘My Darlin’ Eileen’, performed by Eileen and the New York Police, all apparently Irish, is the show highlight.

Wonderful Town Photo by Alastair Muir

The show’s worth seeing, particularly during the first two weeks when The Halle provides the music, but I doubt many will put it on their favourites list.  Part of the appeal of many older musicals is that familiarity helps to suspend our disbelief, and with the plot of many musicals, even opera,  that takes some doing; we just enjoy the nostalgia, if only for earlier years when on a wet Sunday afternoon with no shops open we’d become word-perfect watching TV reruns.  

The rarely-seen Wonderful Town doesn’t have that familiarity to fall back on, so the creaky predictability of the plot and the outdated view of women and gender relationships can grate.  There’s also a complete absence of black characters which doesn’t ring true with modern audiences, particularly when jazz influences the score so wonderfully.  The clever wording in some of the songs is insufficiently pointed up and Connie Fisher’s character Ruth doesn’t make a fully-convincing transition from a tense round-shouldered small-town girl, towards a confident New-Yorker. 

However I love the collaboration.  Manchester should be proud of the artistic talents and institutions it is home to, and how well the spirit of co-operation can thrive, but I do wish it had worked on rather more wonderful material.  Let’s hope there’s more.  And hope too that in playing to a wider audience our wonderful Halle orchestra will attract new audiences to its regular superb Bridgewater Hall concerts.

Wonderful Town is performed at The Lowry until 21 April and then tours until July. The Halle Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, provides the music until 18 April after which a smaller orchestra will take over for the final week in Salford and for the tour.

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Christine KilbyApril 9th 2012.

This is an excellent and balanced review. For me you can keep the majority of musicals but it was Bernstein's score and the presence of the Halle that made me go to see this one. The staging was excellent but, dare I say it, occasionally I was bored. It's no West Side Story. Connie Fisher is of course very competent but cold and sexless to be brutally honest. OK if you need to find something to do on a wet night in April.

Lancytyke105April 9th 2012.

Not sure if you don,t like musicals why you would go but I thought the whole evening uplifting . Musicals are mostly pastiche and escapism and this one has both in spades . The collaboration really works with all elements contributing to superb design , production and delivery . Reputationally this is meant to be a lesser work but I think this manchester production elevates it to really great musical theatre . Don,t miss it if you like musicals .

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