United Kingdom Leonard Bernstein: Wonderful Town, Connie Fisher (Ruth Sherwood), Singers, Ensemble, Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder, Lyric Theatre, The Lowry, Salford Quays, 4.4.2012 (MC)
Music by Leonard Bernstein Book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green Based upon the play My Sister Eileen by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov and the short Stories by Ruth McKenney
Director: Braham Murray
Conductor: Sir Mark Elder
Choreographer: Andrew Wright
Set and Costume Designer: Simon Higlett
Lighting designer: Chris Davey
Sound designer: Clement Rawling
Connie Fisher (Ruth Sherwood)
Lucy van Gasse (Eileen Sherwood)
Michael Xavier (Robert (Bob) Baker)
Haydn Oakley (Frank Lippencott)
Joseph Alessi (Chick Clark)
Michael Matus (Speedy Valenti)
Sevan Stephan (Mr Appopolous)
Nic Greenshields (Wreck Loomis)
Tiffany Graves (Helen)
Annette Yeo (Mrs Wade and Violet)
Paul Hawkyard (Officer Lonigan)
Written in just five weeks Leonard Bernstein’s music to his joyful musical comedy Wonderful Town in Braham Murray’s stunning new production demonstrates its undoubted merit. Set in the mid 1930s the sisters from Ohio, Ruth and Eileen Sherwood arrive in Greenwich Village, New York City and begin renting a dingy basement apartment. Like millions of others before and after them Ruth and Eileen are looking for fame, fortune and love.
It was Sir Mark Elder musical director of the Hallé Orchestra who some years ago after seeing Wonderful Town in New York contacted Braham Murray about the possibility of reviving the musical in the UK. One can only start to imagine the amount of work and energy needed to bring this idea to fruition. The stage at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester wasn’t large enough for the fully staged production they had in mind. So it was decided that the Royal Exchange Theatre and the Hallé Orchestra would jointly stage the production at the Lyric Theatre at the Lowry in Salford Quays. The large pit at the Lowry manages to just squeeze in the Hallé’s players who will play at the Lowry until 14th April 2012. This will be the first time that Sir Mark Elder has conducted a musical with the Hallé Orchestra and seemingly this is also the first time a full symphony orchestra has played in a theatre pit in this country. During a recent interview that I had with Sir Mark at his Manchester apartment he was glowing with enthusiasm for his forthcoming Wonderful Town revival. (Link: Sir Mark Elder) He reminded me how well the Hallé can swing stating how an orchestra can only benefit from the experience of playing different types of music. At the Lowry from the 16th April another set of musicians – but a much smaller number – will perform under conductor James Burton until 21st April then Wonderful Town embarks on a UK tour visiting 11 towns and cities.
Based on the personal memoirs of Ruth McKenney the hit original play My Sister Eileen was written by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov. It was lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green who visualised a musical and approached Leonard Bernstein to write the music. Premièred in 1953 on Broadway the musical Wonderful Town soon became a smash hit. Although Wonderful Town is not as well known as Bernstein’s later musical, his magnum opus West Side Story, this fully staged collaborative production definitely hits the spot with its all round excellence. Never can a pit orchestra have sounded so excellent than in this production with the talented Hallé players proving they can let their hair down and swing with the finest of theatre orchestras.
Back from recent throat surgery Connie Fisher is in the lead role as the aspiring journalist Ruth Sherwood. Fisher is widely known as the winner of the BBC television talent show How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria that landed her the role of Maria von Trapp in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of the musical The Sound of Music. Now with a slightly darker tone to her voice the confident looking Fisher sounded pretty secure and well suited to her leading role. I enjoyed her performance of One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man and the Conga with her admiring troupe of excitable Brazilian sailors. This was a wholehearted performance from Fisher as brunette Ruth the more sensible, academic and long suffering sister of the man-magnet that is Eileen. Lucy van Gasse plays Eileen Sherwood a dizzy blonde who has the knack of winding men around her little finger. Soprano Van Gasse excelled in the popular song A Little Bit in Love. In one highly comic episode it seemed that the whole of the Greenwich Village police department, seemingly all Irish, were at the beck and call of the jailed Eileen.
The male eye candy was the immaculately suited and booted lead Michael Xavier who did a decent enough job as Bob Baker. Memorable was his serenading of Ruth in A Quiet Girl and his rendition of the annoyingly memorable What a Waste with a group of newspaper editors was a real hoot. The star performance to emerge from the cast was Nic Greenshields as the amusing off-season American footballer Wreck who made a great deal out of the role. Like many others I’m sure I came out with the toe tapping and catchy ensemble piece Wrong Note Rag running though my head. Choreographer Andrew Wright made a wonderful job of the dance routines, razor sharp, energetic and splendidly together. I was rather disappointed that the moving ballad Story of My Life that was cut from the musical was not reinstated for this production. Chris Davey’s lighting was spectacular and I loved Simon Higlett’s colourful scenery that felt just perfect for the 1930s period.
Clearly lavished with great care and affection this production of Bernstein’s marvellously uplifting musical Wonderful Town is a sure-fire winner. It has to be the must-see musical of the year.