It’s been nearly 20 years since the last major UK revival of Wonderful Town but, while the piece may – on some levels – now be showing its age, one doubts it’s ever been heard with such lavish sound. Leonard Bernstein’s neglected score may be 60 next year but it still soars.
This is a well-trod tale for Broadway musicals; two sisters from Ohio arrive in New York desperate to make the big time. One sister is fighting off men’s advances while the other is scaring men off. The plot itself may be a wobbly as the walls of the girls’ rundown basement apartment, little more than a loose framework for the song and dance numbers but, when those numbers are pure Bernstein classics, we don’t care.
From the haunting love melodies of A Quiet Girl through pure musical comedy of 100 Easy Ways To Lose A Man to the full-on Conga! Benstein’s lush score runs the whole gamut of musical theatre, and even throws in a bit of opera for good measure. Add in witty lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and you get the perfect musical evening.
Director Braham Murray has assembled a first-rate company of 24 who don’t put a step out of place all evening, led by Connie Fisher, who shows she’s got a fine line in comic timing as well as a beautiful singing voice. Despite Fisher’s talents, though, there are plenty of other performances to savour. Lucy Van Gasse sings up a storm with her seductive Eileen, even managing to get the New York Police Department into a – possibly racially stereotyped – Riverdance medley. Michael Xavier’s jaded newspaper editor Bob Baker is a pure joy. Xavier’s rendition of A Quiet Girl a soaring example of how to deliver a song.
There’s also fine comical support from Nic Greenshields as man mountain Wreck Loomis and Sevan Stephan’s artist landlord Mr Appopolous.
Simon Higlett’s simple but effective sets give just enough hint of the claustrophobic confines of New York, while Andrew Wright’s lively choreography gives the residents an excuse to break out of those confines, even spilling a conga line into the stalls.
While this is a slimmed down orchestra from the full Halle Orchestra for the production’s debut in Salford, conductor James Burton elicits a full, lush sound that brings Bernstein’s score vividly to life. In all honesty Wonderful Town now does seem something of a museum piece, its plot and characters belonging to a bygone age. But Bernstein’s score and Comden and Green’s lyrics remain a treat to enjoy at any opportunity.
This production captures the piece for posterity in all its glory in a production that’s hard to fault. If there’s a better sung, better played score this year in a musical I’ll be very surprised.
Originally written for The Public Reviews