Wonderful Town continues at Ye Olde Rose and Crown, London until 30 October.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Director Tim McArthur and MD Aaron Clingham reunite for an exuberant, action-packed revival (indeed, a miraculous resuscitation) in Walthamstow of Leonard Bernstein and Comden and Green’s 1953 musical Wonderful Town. Not quite a lost treasure – it did seem to vanish for 50 years until its revival on Broadway in 2003, after which it’s lingered on the fringes of the musical theatre scene – it’s nevertheless rarely enough done to make it worth the trip to E17.
The book, by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, is based on their play My Sister Eileen, which in turn was inspired by the memoirs of real-life journalist Ruth McKenney. The plot pinballs all over the place, much as McKenney did, or at least according to her humorous accounts in The New Yorker.
It centres on two sisters who leave the comfort of Ohio to seek their fortune in Manhattan, where, of course, nothing goes to plan. It amuses and bemuses in equal parts, so the best thing to do is suspend your disbelief and just go with the flow, rather than let the zany tangents, expendable characters and fraying loose ends get in the way of the wonderful music and top-class performances.
Ruth is played with absolute conviction by Mountview-trained Lizzie Wofford, who seems made for the role of the lovable, bookish, wannabe author. She really captures the spirit of the age – it’s set in the 1930s – with a sassy yet vulnerable performance. She handles the vocals effortlessly, nailing all of the best songs (‘Ohio’, ‘One Hundred Easy Ways’, ‘Swing’).
Wofford is perfectly matched with her ‘sister’ Eileen, in the shape of Francesca Benton-Stace, who also has no trouble convincing us of her abilities as an actor and singer. This double act is a joy to watch, and they keep us in the palms of their hands throughout with their compelling performances.
Love interests are provided by Aneurin Pascoe, who turns in an authentic and nicely nuanced turn as magazine editor Bob Baker; the ever-reliable Hugo Joss Catton as bumbling Walgreens manager Frank Lippencott; and Ashley Holman as sleazy newspaper hack Chick Clark.
Rounding off the principals are Simon Burr as washed-up football star Wreck, and Francesca Pim, in the comedic role of Wreck’s live-in-sin lover Helen. Both do a fine job of roles that are pretty much superfluous to the story, but add some gentle comedy.
The (extensive) supporting cast – Laurel Dougall, Nicholas Chiappetta, Kitty Whitelaw, Jack Keane, Joe Goldie, Lucie Horsfall, Leah Pinney, Jon R Harrison and Anna Middlemas – are given plenty to do, and they all pull it off it to a very high standard. Their choreography, by Ian Pyle, is outstanding, worthy of anything you’d see in the West End.
Musically, it’s all left to the uber-talented MD Clingham at the piano (seemingly the result of licensing demands that stubbornly insist on either the full orchestration or a single piano reduction). While it’s a shame we don’t have any instrumental colour – or drumkit – Clingham brings Bernstein’s score to life; it’s only when we get to the big moments, such as the ‘Conga’ that ends Act I, that one wishes for a bigger, brassier sound.
The set leaves a lot to be desired, it has to be said, although the high concept of a blanket covering of newsprint works well. As a chamber show in a Fringe venue, it’s an acceptable shortcoming. Sky Bembury’s thoughtful lighting design helps to take the edge off the Pritt-stick-and-papier-mâché set.
All in all, Wonderful Town is a strong, audacious production of a not-so-strong show. It’s the gusto of the performers – and McArthur’s perfect pacing – that breathes new life into this aging material. It fizzes with a youthful effervescence, and the joy is infectious. They’ll all clearly having a lot of fun, and it’s impossible not to grin along with them.