Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town [On tour: at Milton Keynes Theatre]

Wonderful Town – Musical comedy with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green, book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, based on their play My Sister Eileen and the short stories of Ruth McKenney [The Royal Exchange Theatre, The Hallé Concerts Society and The Lowry production on tour]

Ruth Sherwood – Connie Fisher
Eileen Sherwood – Lucy van Gasse
Bob Baker – Michael Xavier
Chick Clark – Joseph Alessi
Helen – Tiffany Graves
Wreck – Nic Greenshields
Violet / Mrs Wade – Annette Yeo
Mr Appopolous – Sévan Stephan
Officer Lonigan – Paul Hawkyard
Speedy Valenti – Michael Matus
Haydn Oakley – Frank Lippencott
Fletcher / Yogi / Editor 2 – Bob Harms
Eskimo Pie Man / Waiter / Drunk / Radical – Giovanni Spanó
Editor 1 / Shore Patrolman / Man with Sign – Matt Wilman
Tour Guide – Peter McPherson
Modern Dancers – Lucy James & Oliver Roll
Radical – Katy Hards
A Kid – Liam Wrate
Drunk / Chef – Alain Terzoli

Orchestra: Ben Kennedy (keyboard & Assistant Musical Director); Jeremy Isaac & Sebastian Rudnicki (violins); Dan Manente (viola); Rebecca Leyton (cello); Joe Pettitt (double bass); Jim Muirhead (flute, clarinets & alto saxophone); Carl Raven (clarinets & alto saxophone); Chris Caldwell (clarinet & tenor saxophone); Naomi Sullivan (flute, piccolo, clarinet & tenor saxophone); Nigel Hailwood (clarinet & alto and baritone saxophones); Russell Bennett & Andrew Dallimore (trumpets); Matt Palmer (trumpet & flugelhorn); Richard Wigley & Ashley Horton (trombones); Ben Gay (percussion) / James Burton (conductor & musical director)

Braham Murray – Director
Andrew Wright – Choreographer
Simon Higlett – Set & Costume Designer
Chris Davey – Lighting Designer
Clement Rawling – Sound Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 25 April, 2012
Venue: Milton Keynes Theatre, Borough of Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, England

Leonard BernsteinLeonard Bernstein always put an indelible stamp on any project and made it his own. It wasn’t always easy – just think of the many times Candide was revised and yet is still not totally satisfactory, despite being highly enjoyable. Bernstein’s first musical for Broadway, On the Town (1944), grew out of his music for the ballet Fancy Free, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, about three sailors on leave in New York with a score that incorporates jazz rhythms and keeps it newly-minted. The star of the show is New York itself and the piece, with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, sparkled with wit and gloss: shiny words to accompany a glittering score. Comden-Green lyrics are timeless, as you would expect from a team that went on to write the books and/or lyrics for Singin’ in the Rain, Bells Are Ringing, Applause, and On the Twentieth Century, among others.

In 1953 Comden and Green also provided the lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town. Again, the show has a score superior and decidedly different to most Broadway shows of the time. It also had a strange genesis in that the basis of the show lay in a collection of stories published in the New Yorker magazine in the mid-1930s written by journalist Ruth McKenney about the adventures she had with her sister Eileen when they moved from Columbus, Ohio to the Big Apple. The stories were collected and published in book-form in 1938, from which Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov fashioned a play which ran on Broadway between 1940 and 1943 starring Shirley Booth and Jo Ann Sayers. In 1942 the play was adapted by the authors as a screenplay for Rosalind Russell and Janet Blair. This was later adapted for radio and was mooted as a series for Lucille Ball that never came to fruition. Its next adaptation was for the Bernstein-Comden-Green stage musical in 1953 with Rosalind Russell again, although when Columbia Pictures wanted to film it as My Sister Eileen, the company couldn’t secure the music rights, so asked Jule Style and Leo Robin to write new songs. Betty Garrett and Janet Leigh starred as Ruth and Eileen, with Jack Lemmon and Bob Fosse, the latter also choreographing the film. A TV adaptation, also with Rosalind Russell, in 1958 and a sitcom version of the stories aired on American television in 1960.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-90)It’s a property that was dear to the hearts of the American public, a sort of less-racy Sex and the City. Bernstein’s adaptation ran for nearly 600 performances with Rosalind Russell and Edie Adams. It was less successful in London in 1955 lasting just over 200 performances with Pat Kirkwood and Shani Wallis. There have been a few revivals in the US, a concert version in New York in 2000, a lengthy run of almost five-hundred performances in 2003 and a US tour in 2006 and 2007. It wasn’t revived in Britain until 1986 when it ran at the Watford Palace with Maureen Lipman, Emily Morgan and Ray Lonnen and then transferred to the West End for about eight months.

Director George Abbott had originally commissioned Leroy Anderson – composer of Sleigh Ride, The Typewriter, and Belle of the Ball, among many light-music gems – and when Comden & Green offered to write the lyrics, they then suggested Bernstein as composer. The whole thing took no more than a month to complete, an amazing feat for something so long-lasting. Being based on the personal experiences of Ruth McKenney, who wanted to be a writer, and her sister Eileen, who hankered after a career in the theatre, the show arguably found recognition in any young heart that had come to the big city looking for fame and fortune. The adventures ring true.

The plot, set in 1935, is full of comedy shtick involving a nutty foreign landlord and would-be artist who rents tiny, damp basement rooms open to interruption by the passing population of Greenwich Village and the noise of the Sixth Avenue subway. As Ruth and Eileen prepare to move in, local colour offers tourist guides pointing out the pleasures of Washington Square and, in song, ‘Christopher Street’ (still noted for its bohemian residents); the clubs that grew up in the 1930s catering for poets and jazz musicians; and the local Irish cops, all seemingly with hearts of gold when Eileen spends time behind bars for causing a riot. The show is a paean of praise to Greenwich Village, just as On the Town celebrated the whole of New York. The girls may sing “Why, oh why, oh why-o/ Did I ever leave Ohio?” but in fact they have found their place – an escape from Smalltown USA.

Romance is never far away, at least for Eileen, the pretty blonde who attracts men wherever she goes. Ruth is more philosophical about her powers for not attracting a partner, as she sings ‘100 easy ways to lose a man’, the story of her love life. Attracted to Bob Baker, a story editor, she leaves him with samples of her writing, which is all he appears to be interested in, although he is himself looking for ‘A quiet girl’ to love. Ruth is sent on a wild-goose-chase to interview some Brazilian sailors but they only want to learn the conga dance. Threatened with eviction when they can’t pay the rent, Eileen lands a job as a singer at the Village Vortex club. Ruth joins her, Bob realises he loves Ruth and they wind up singing and dancing just like any other happy-ending show.

Many of the numbers lend themselves to being choreographed and Andrew Wright takes every chance in ‘Pass the football’ and ‘Ballet at the Village Vortex’. The company provide some great dancing that really does swing and there’s a nice touch in the song ‘My darlin’ Eileen’ in which a whole precinct of Irish policemen go into a Riverdance-type routine that gives the show an even bigger lift.

Connie Fisher, with The Sound of Music behind her, gets to be edgy as Ruth rather than sweet as Maria. Vocally she can sing with the best. As Eileen Lucy van Gasse possesses a beautifully clear voice and the two leading ladies have a definite chemistry. Tiffany Graves and Nic Greenshields provide good value as neighbours Helen and her football-playing squeeze Wreck. If some of the other male roles are a little stereotyped, Michael Xavier as Bob Baker, Sévan Stephan as landlord Appopoulos, Michael Matus as club owner Speedy Valenti, and Joseph Alessi as newspaperman Chick Clark play to their strengths as best they can.

It is in Bernstein’s glorious score and the Comden & Green lyrics where Wonderful Town turns up trumps. Rediscovered by Mark Elder for the Hallé and Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, this production premiered at The Lowry in Salford and is now touring the UK. Braham Murray’s zestful staging will bring a lot of pleasure as it travels around the country, even though the orchestra has been scaled down for the tour. Still, catch it where you can.

  • Wonderful Town is at Milton Keynes Theatre, 24-28 April; Sheffield Lyceum, 1-5 May; Glasgow King’s Theatre, 8-12 May; Nottingham Theatre Royal, 15-19 May; Birmingham Hippodrome, 22-26 May; Southampton Mayflower, 29 May-2 June; Norwich Theatre Royal, 5-9 June; Newcastle Theatre Royal, 12-16 June; Woking New Victoria, 19-23 June; Plymouth Theatre Royal, 26-30 June; Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 3-7 July

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