REVIEW: Wonderful Town

WHILE it’s been a full 26 years since Wonderful Town took the plaudits on it’s West End revival with Maureen Lipman in the main role, the second revival of showbiz legend Leonard Bernstein’s musical comedy doesn’t quite hit the spot.

Wonderful Town first appeared on Broadway in 1953 where it won five Tony Awards while the latest revival recently opened to packed audiences for a three-week run at The Lowry in Salford Quays, Manchester, before it set off on a three month tour which started at Milton Keynes Theatre last Tuesday where it drew mixed reactions.

With a somewhat predictable storyline and lyrics like ‘Why, oh why, oh why-o, why did I ever leave Ohio?’, it’s now rather dated and, almost 60 years on, Wonderful Town didn’t really do justice to what is an amazingly versatile and talented cast.

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Forget the Bernstein connection, West Side Story it isn’t. However it’s a very colourful and lively musical which, thanks to its cast headed by the bubbly and enthusiastic Connie Fisher of Sound of Music fame, is bound to do well.

The show is a collaboration between The Lowry, the Royal Exchange Theatre and the Hallé Orchestra under the directorship of Braham Murray who spent the opening night interval listening to the audience’s comments and reactions in the theatre’s foyer.

While the plot is nothing new, it’s all about the Sherwood sisters who travel from Columbus, Ohio to New York to seek their fortunes. The idea is taken from the book, My Sister Eileen.

Ruth Sherwood at 26 is the older sister played by Fisher who is hardly recognisable in a 1930-style wig. Ruth, who is made to look a bit dowdy, is an aspiring writer while the beautiful Eileen (Lucy van Gasse) attracts men like a magnet.

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Basically the pair are tricked by Mr Appopolous (Sevan Stephan) into renting his dank Greenwich Village basement apartment on Christopher Street while the show opens with a bus driving tour guide pointing out the places of interest to a variety of eager sightseers before they all ended up on the aforementioned road.

Once ensconced in their below street level apartment, the sisters sit miserably on their beds and sing the strangely catchy ‘Why, Oh Why-O Ohio’ duet (how the original lyricists Adolph Green and Betty Comden got away with that I’ll never now?).

Sadly Connie Fisher’s soprano days when she was a brilliant Sound of Music ‘Maria’ are over. She recently underwent throat surgery and is now an alto, although her voice is still stunning and it blended perfectly with van Gasse’s beautiful soprano.

There are all sorts of comings and goings with the likes of American footballer ‘Wreck’ Lomis (superbly played by the near seven foot tall giant Nic Greenshields), the flash Chick Clark (Joseph Alessi) who falls for Eileen and New York-Irish police officer Lonigan (Paul Hawkyard) are all outstanding.

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It’s Ruth’s arrival at the door of book editor Bob Baker (Michael Xavier) that the thin storyline finally unfolds.

Biggleswade resident Xavier has a superb voice while his ‘What a Waste’

sequence with his deputy editors is both catchy and amusing. Van Gasse’s ‘A Little Bit in Love’ has a real dreaminess about it while Fisher’s ‘100 East Ways to Lose A Man’ is followed by her and Xavier singing a haunting ‘A Quiet Girl’.

But when Ruth is tricked into interviewing a bunch of Brazilian sailors, they dance and sing an amusing Conga routine before Eileen gets in on the act to end Act One.

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For me the best song and dance routine came at the start of the second act when Eileen (who finds herself in jail) is joined by Officer Lonigan and half a dozen other ‘Oirish’ policemen is ‘My Darlin’ Eileen’. It’s a real show-stopper and a cross between Irish dancing and a River Dance so full credit to choreographer Andrew (Singin’ in the Rain) Wright for that, it’s brilliant!

With plenty of slick dance sequences, an ‘Ohio’ reprise and Baker, Eileen, Officer Lonigan and the Greenwich Villagers singing ‘It’s Love’ and then the sisters and whole company involved in the ‘Wrong Note Rag’, the show seems to end abruptly with Baker finally falling for Ruth with another reprise of ‘It’s Love’.

The orchestra (led by musical director James Burton) is superb as is the acting and singing courtesy of a very talented and larger than usual 40 strong cast ... but after leaving the theatra I found myself humming ‘Why, Oh Why, Oh Why-O, Did I Ever Leave Ohio?’

While the show left MK on Saturday, it is playing at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield until Saturday (May 5) this week then its off to Glasgow, Nottingham, Birmingham, Southampton, Norwich, Newcastle, Woking, Plymouth before ending it’s run in early July at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff.

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