Wonderful Town

Music by Leonard Bernstein, book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
All Star Productions
Ye Olde Rose and Crown Pub Theatre

Wonderful Town Credit: David Ovenden
Wonderful Town Credit: David Ovenden

There is a bright optimistic thread running through the All Star Production of Bernstein’s 1953 musical Wonderful Town. This is in part an expression of the show’s dialogue, music and story. But it is also a matter of Tim Arthur’s bold impressive direction, Ian Pyle’s lively ambitious choreography and the assured performances of a cast that is clearly having a good deal of fun.

The show is set in 1935, and newspapers from that year are plastered to the back wall of the thrust stage. It is a year when America was on the move, driven by an economic depression that was shaking old certainties.

Ruth (Lizzie Wofford) and her younger sister Eileen (Francesca Benton-Stace) arrive in New York’s Greenwich Village hoping to find work and accommodation. They are hungry, have little money but are full of hope that a new life is possible. Ruth wants to work as a writer and Eileen as an actor.

They are immediately caught up in the urban bustle of Christopher Street where their newly secured apartment window opens directly onto the busy pavement.

The musical is built around these two strong characters who initiate most of the action, and generally motivate or direct the male characters. They are smart-talking and intelligent.

If all that wasn’t a sufficient breach of the expected gender roles of 1953 (and 1935) then there is also the depiction of the male characters which includes the football athlete Wreck (Simon Burr) shown at an ironing board ironing the pleats in a woman’s skirt. This was several years before a number of London critics were supposedly concerned about the appearance of an ironing board on the stage of Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.

This musical was created in 1953 by young people who were sure the world was opening up. It deliberately shunts aside sources of restriction, including the only parent in the script, Mrs Wade (Laurel Dougall), who is gently manipulated into accepting her daughter’s choice of marriage partner.

The literate and witty songs are exciting. They vary from the soothing harmonies of the Western Swing influenced “Ohio” sung as a duet by the sisters, to the zany dance numbers of the Admiral’s “Conga” and the cartoon police performing the pastiche Irish jig “My Darlin’ Eileen”.

It’s all good fun, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t got important things to say. One of the funniest songs is the swing blues influenced “One hundred Days / Ways to lose a man” in which Ruth laments the many ways a woman can lose a man by revealing that she is more knowledgeable or skilled than him.

Ian Pyle’s imaginative choreography keeps things constantly in motion to such an extent that it amazed me that the large cast didn’t crash into each other. The most exciting sequence came with the song “Swing” in which the movements seemed to anticipate those in West Side Story.

At times, it seemed like an exuberant party that welcomed everyone and indeed the audience were encouraged to join the last sequence of the first half of the show.

However, such high spirits are not always so popular with the police, so when Eileen leads a Conga dance down Christopher Street which turns into a bit of a party, she is arrested for causing a riot. Of course sixteen years later in 1969 it was the corruption and brutality of the police that caused the Stonewall riots on Christopher Street out of which emerged the Gay Liberation Front. But that was in the future. The police in this musical, like every other character, fall under the charm of the leading women.

This is a remarkably fine production of a musical whose upbeat mood and warm optimistic vision will lift your spirits.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna