A Wonderful Party of a Musical for Bernstein’s Centennial

United StatesUnited States Bernstein, Wonderful Town: Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra of LA Opera / Grant Gershon (conductor), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 2.12.2016. (JRo)

LA Opera - Wonderful Town  Photos by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging
LA Opera’s Wonderful Town
Faith Prince (Ruth Sherwood) & dancers (c) Craig T. Mathew

Ruth Sherwood – Faith Prince
Eileen Sherwood – Nikki M. James
Robert Baker – Marc Kudisch
Narrator/Tour Guide/Speedy Valenti/Chick Clark/Others – Roger Bart
Wreck – Ben Crawford
Helen – Julia Aks
Frank Lippencott – Jared Gertner
Mr. Appopolous – Tony Abatemarco
Officer Lonigan – Brian Michael Moore
Associate Editor/Policeman – Theo Hoffman
Policeman – Carlos Enrique Santelli
Policeman – Josh Wheeker
Violet – Elizabeth Zharoff

Book – Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov
Lyrics – Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Director/Concert Adaptation – David Lee
Choreographer – Peggy Hickey
Projection Design – Hana S. Kim
Lighting Design – Azra King-Abadi

With the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth approaching in 2018, LA Opera began the celebration with a semi-staged concert performance of Wonderful Town. For the occasion, the orchestra was seated on the stage and flanked by LA Opera Chorus members, with the soloists lining up front and center. What began as a sedate and pleasant evening steadily grew into the best party in town.

It had to be one for the record books – how many conductors have you seen dance an Irish jig on the podium? Grant Gershon did and, I can tell you, everyone in the audience was glad he did. Adding to the fun were snaking Conga lines, Portuguese sailors, lovelorn Irish cops, the witty lyrics of Comden and Green evoking a vanished New York of the 1930s, and the jazzy syncopations of Bernstein’s lively score.

Bernstein created a unified whole, rather than a series of hummable show tunes, by repeating themes as introductions to songs or using melodies from one tune as an opener to another. In his words, ‘The background is pure theatre music, operating exclusively in theatre terms, not with an eye on Tin Pan Alley, and not to create a memorable tune, but something which is an integral part of the story’. And with Comden and Green’s frothy mix of humor and sophistication, the verbal acrobatics blend into the music whether spoken or sung.

First conceived as a series of sketches by Ruth McKenney and published in The New Yorker in the thirties, the plot revolves around the adventures of the author and her sister, Eileen, as they experience the ups and downs of the creative life in New York. Later produced for stage and film, My Sister Eileen became a hit, ultimately spawning Bernstein’s 1953 musical which starred Rosalind Russell as Ruth.

Faith Prince took on the role of wisecracking Ruth, the cerebral older sister who has trouble attracting men because of a tendency to display her intelligence and grit. In ‘One Hundred Easy Ways’ she demonstrates, to hilarious effect, how to lose a man. As her outgoing, adorable younger sister who has no trouble attracting the opposite sex, Nikki M. James proved a perfect foil. Though Ruth ultimately finds love with a magazine editor (Mark Kudisch), the real love story here is the affection the sisters have for each other. In their duets – ‘Ohio’, ‘It’s Love’, and ‘Wrong Note Rag’ – Prince and James made us believe in true sisterhood as they survived career rejections, a noisy basement apartment, jail time, and even an attraction to the same man.

The evening’s entertainment wouldn’t have been as antic without the contribution of Roger Bart in multiple roles. His ability to change hats from sleazy nightclub owner to fast talking newspaperman to bored English gentlemen added an unpredictable edge to what otherwise might have been a static reading of the script.

Concert performances of opera and musicals can be problematic without the right cast to convey the dramatic flavors of a full production. From Ben Crawford’s cliché of a dumb football hero who ‘never learned to read Mother Goose or Andre Gide’, to Mark Kudisch’s turn as Ruth’s love interest and advocate, we were treated to lively, lyrical interpretations.

Illustrating the scenes, however, proved more problematic. Video projected on an enormous screen behind the orchestra threatened to devour the cast and assembled players. Designed by by Hana S. Kim, the projections opened with washy watercolor cartoons of the New York skyline and tenements passing by at a frantic pace. And in a trite display of color bursts across the screen, Kim attempted to create a visual equivalent of sound. Happily, when illustrating the sisters’ basement apartment rocked by construction sounds or a failed dinner party table setting, the projections seemed to enhance rather than detract, adding a touch of humor and pathos.

Peggy Hickey’s choreography was remarkable for its ability to get maximum heft in a very confined space out of the all-male ensemble. Dancing sailors, policemen, and hipsters cavorted with the sisters in conga lines, jigs, and jitterbugs.

The orchestra, under the direction of the ebullient Grant Gershon, happily rendered the ballads, jazz melodies, Irish inflections, Conga rhythms, and Swing sounds of Bernstein’s score. Fortunately the party will continue in the LA Opera’s 2017/18 season, with an as yet unannounced major production of another Bernstein piece. Make it Candide, please!

Jane Rosenberg

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