tue 28/05/2024

Wonderful Town, The Lowry, Salford | reviews, news & interviews

Wonderful Town, The Lowry, Salford

Wonderful Town, The Lowry, Salford

Not quite West Side Story, but Bernstein's 1953 hit musical still hits the spot

Ruth Sherwood (Connie Fisher) prepares to do the conga with seven Brazilian sailorsAlastair Muir

The cultural triumvirate of the Hallé Orchestra, the Royal Exchange Theatre and The Lowry have joined forces for this new production of the 1953 hit musical Wonderful Town. Leonard Bernstein would surely have been a happy man to hear his score, dashed off in a mere five weeks at short notice, played by the 65-strong Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder, who has been nursing the ambition to do the show here since he saw the 2004 Broadway production.  

Fisher has pizzazz and a gift for comedy

On The Town or West Side Story, written either side of it, it is not, but the rich score has a few good songs, elements of jazz, pastiche and fun numbers. And there are pre-echoes of West Side Story. Elder was absolutely in his element - coaxing, energetic, beaming in the spotlight. At the end of the show when the curtain went down, he had his band play on, earning a standing ovation.

Bernstein worked with his lyricist friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The original Broadway production, starring Rosalind Russell, won five Tony Awards. Here we have the earnest and engaging Connie Fisher in the role of Ruth Sherwood, the responsible elder of two sisters from Ohio seeking their fortune and romance in New York in 1935. She reminds me somewhat of a young Maureen Lipman, who played the part 25 years ago when the show was last performed in the West End and was nominated for an Olivier. Fisher has her own pizzazz and a gift for comedy. Her singing voice is more contralto now, which works particularly well in the wistful "Ohio" duet with Lucy van Gasse (pictured above right), a classically trained soprano, as her sister Eileen. I do have one quibble - I couldn’t figure out what American accent Fisher was trying to adopt – it sounded more Southern hick than Ohio to my ear, and she seemed to have trouble holding onto it.

The story follows the girls from their arrival in Greenwich Village, landing up in a grotty basement apartment, frequently shaken to its foundations by the subway being gouged out beneath it. Ruth is a struggling writer, Eileen a would-be actress. She’s the dishy Marilyn Monroe-ish one and the one all the guys fall for. But you can guess who ends up with the heart-throb in the end, handsomely portrayed and sung by Michael Xavier, back on home ground here.

The show is very much dance-dominated. There are several inventive, crisp, exhilarating and witty routines created by choreographer Andrew Wright. For example, when Eileen does time in police custody, the officers can’t do enough for her, which leads to the show-stopping mock-Irish number of "My Darlin’ Eileen" (think Molly Malone) and a well-drilled take-off of Riverdance. And there is, of course, the famous conga, when first Ruth (Fisher cheerfully withstanding being tossed around) and then Eileen meet seven Brazilian sailors. They even end up conga-ing round the theatre. (Elder recalls Sir Simon Rattle conducting the score at the Proms in 2000 and promenaders conga-ing round the Albert Hall). The 16-strong mixed chorus of dancers (pictured below) display astonishing athleticism, timing and technique.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are only four memorable songs: "Ohio", "100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man" (knowingly delivered by Fisher), "A Little Bit in Love" (beautifully sung by Van Gasse) and "It’s Love" (interpreted in style by Michael Xavier in particular).

Braham Murray, one of the founding artistic directors of the Royal Exchange – this is his 71st production – has a big cast to work with, including a dozen principals. The show is beautifully paced, slow story-developing scenes being interposed with the high jinx. A real achievement. The staging is splendid, with a soaring tenement backdrop, opening out into Sixth Avenue, designed by Simon Higlett and brilliantly lit by Chris Davey.

There’s a good deal of comedy and some memorable character parts, such as big Nic Greenshields’s football player and Sevan Stephan’s outrageous artist Mr Appoppolous, the girls’ exploitative landlord.

The producers are Lee Menzies and Kenny Wax, no doubt encouraged by the success of their production of Irving Berlin’s 1935 musical, Top Hat, which opened here at The Lowry and finished up in the West End.

But the music is the thing, and with Elder at the helm Bernstein is wonderfully well served.

  • Wonderful Town is at The Lowry, Salford, until 21 April, then on UK tour until 7 July
Leonard Bernstein would surely have been a happy man to hear his score, dashed off in a mere five weeks at short notice, played by the 65-strong Hallé Orchestra


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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