REVIEW: Wonderful Town starring Connie Fisher and Michael Xavier, King’s Theatre Glasgow, 12th May 2012

Wonderful Town was written in five weeks in 1953 by the legendary Leonard Bernstein with lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The original Broadway production, starring Rosalind Russell, won five Tony Awards, in this production we have Connie Fisher (below) as Ruth Sherwood, the elder of two sisters from Ohio seeking excitement, fortune and romance in New York in 1935.

The story follows them from their arrival in Greenwich Village, living in a basement apartment shaken to its foundations by the subway beneath.

Ruth is a struggling writer, Eileen a would-be actress played by Lucy Van Gasse (below).

At first, their quest goes badly wrong.  Ruth falls for Bob (handsomely portrayed and sung by Michael Xavier, below) but he falls for sassy Eileen. You can guess who ends up with the heart-throb in the end and eventually the right girl gets the guy.

What I loved about the story was that instead of pitting the two women against each other, there was a solidarity and loyalty to their endearing relationship.

Fisher has matured as an actress since her Sound of Music days and shows a gift for comedy here. After her vocal surgery her singing voice is more contralto rather than Julie Andrews soprano which works particularly well in “Ohio”, her duet with Lucy van Gasse. She also, surprisingly looks nothing like I remembered her – and I wasn’t alone, the people in the row behind me asked the staff in the interval if it really was Fisher on stage. Now bearing in mind I was in the fourth row from the stage!

I do have one quibble with Fisher – I couldn’t figure out what American accent she was going for – at one point I wondered if she was playing a little private game with herself to see if she could visit all 50 states in one performance. But it’s only a small quibble and didn’t detract from the performance.

There’s a good deal of scope in this story to allow others to shine in some memorable character parts; Nic Greenshields’s football playing neighbour Wreck, Michael Matus as nightclub owner Speedy Valenti and Sevan Stephan as Mr Appoppolous, the girls’ bohemian landlord, are particularly good.

Perhaps surprisingly for a musical written in the same era as the better known On The Town and West Side Story, there are very few memorable songs, only: “Ohio” as mentioned before, “100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man” (delivered by Fisher with more than a hint of knowing), “A Little Bit in Love” (beautifully sung by Van Gasse) and “It’s Love” (sung in style by Michael Xavier) stand out. However, the rest of the score is rich and full sounding with elements of jazz, swing and comedy.

The show’s main emphasis though is dance. There are several inventive, pin-sharp and witty routines created by choreographer Andrew Wright. Wright is very much the choreographer of the moment with his impeccably choreographed Singin’ in the Rain currently running to rave reviews in the West End (mine included). When Eileen does time in police custody, the officers can’t do enough for her, which leads to the show-stopping “My Darlin’ Eileen” (think Molly Malone meets Riverdance.) And then there’s a conga, when first Ruth (Fisher being thrown around like a rag doll) and then Eileen meet seven Brazilian sailors (below).

The 16-strong mixed chorus of dancers deserve special praise and display astonishing athleticism, timing and technique throughout.

The show’s story takes a while to develop, and because it’s not a familiar piece, I sensed the attention of the audience waning a little. However the moments of drama are interspersed with comedic high jinks and this goes a long way to help keep the attention levels up.

The staging, designed by Simon Higlett, is excellent, with a bright, colourful, beautifully lit (by Chris Davey), tenement backdrop. It owes more to those films from the golden-age of Hollywood musicals than the West End.

Wonderful Town is an interesting beast. You can’t argue with the quality, it oozes out of every pore of this piece: each and every member of the cast delivers their all, and their energy levels and enthusiasm certainly transmitted to the audience who rewarded them with warm applause and whooping and hollering at the end. It is slick, detailed and tight as well as charming and engaging, but it’s a subtle work and rather than leave singing the show’s tunes, you will leave with a memory of some fine melodies and a big smile on your face.

P.S. The producers are Lee Menzies and Kenny Wax, who, riding on the success of their production of Irving Berlin’s 1935 musical Top Hat which, after a tour round the provinces, was so well received that it has finished up with a coveted run in the West End. They might well have the same hopes for this but I think the unfamiliarity of the show might be its downfall. It certainly won’t be deprived of a run in the West End due to the lack of quality of its cast.

All publicity photos by Alastair Muir.

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