Photo: David Ovenden
For their final production this season, All Star Productions have come up with yet another well-crafted revival of a neglected musical gem.
Written under pressure in four weeks, Leonard Bernstein’s classy, every-fresh score for Wonderful Town (1953) is possibly overshadowed by his two better-known ‘New York’ shows: On The Town (1946) and West Side Story (1958). Yet, it is a corker, imaginatively realised here in a beautifully integrated team effort, supported by Aaron Clingham’s agile solo piano accompaniment and musical direction, which captures the verve and variety of Bernstein’s distinctive melodies.
I am always drawn to theatre that focuses on the lives of ordinary people; usually short on funds and struggling to make their way in life (e.g. She Loves Me, Carousel and Fiddler On The Roof). There are no masks, gothic organs and chandeliers here either, just a simple all-purpose set decorated - along with the props - in 1930s newsprint, reflecting the leading character’s journalistic aspirations. Fifty per cent of the show is set in the noisy, tumbledown basement flat the women are tricked into renting, yet there is little furniture. The cast make a virtue out of necessity and, without beds, cleverly mime their uncomfortable attempts to get to sleep - brilliant!
Based on Ruth McKenney’s autobiographical stories My Sister Eileen (1938) which spawned a play, two films a radio and, later, a TV series, the show light-heartedly deals with the adventures of two ambitious sisters. Ruth and Eileen have broken away from the home in stuffy Ohio to seek fame and fortune in a mythological Greenwich Village full of kooky bohemians, amiable cops and friendly crooks. (Interestingly, the 1955 version is another musical with a completely different score, by Jule Styne and Leo Robin. Miss McKenney certainly launched a thousand - or two - shows).
Lizzie Wofford plays the original Rosalind Russell role Ruth, the elder, wisecracking, ‘plainer’ sister as she imagines herself and wannabe writer, and is certainly a Russell, Stritch or Bea Arthur in the making. Eileen (Francesca Benton-Stace) as her prettier, daffier, romantically inclined sibling hoping to go on the stage, also grabs her role with both hands. Both turn in strong performances, alternately hilarious and touching. Ms Benton-Stace’s rendition of A Little Bit In Love as Eileen falls in turn for every attractive man who comes within her sightlines, is sheer joy; whilst Ms Wofford gets all the fun to be had from the witty A Hundred Easy Ways To Lose A Man.
If the girls’ men friends are somewhat underwritten, at least Aneurin Pascoe (as Baker, Ruth’s reluctant suitor) makes his rendition of A Quiet Girl - one of Bernstein’s most haunting ballads - worth the price of a ticket alone. It moves the plot forward not one jot, but who cares? The rest of the company double up as other would-be boyfriends, villagers, sailors, cops and nightclub dancers, with amazing speed and versatility; notably, Kitty Whitelaw as a sporty Delivery Kid one moment, becoming a stylish, featured dancer in production numbers the next.
In fact, director Tim Arthur and his choreographer Ian Pyle have produced one of the best integrated and moved pieces of theatre I have seen in a while. The standard of dancing is always high at this venue, and from a front row seat, there is no denying the accomplished footwork and aplomb of the cast. Especially enjoyable is a dance drama enacting three of Ruth’s melodramatic short stories. These demonstrate how she needs - as Baker later advises her - to write from her own experience and not simply her imagination. But Bernstein’s varied score inspires choreographic interpretation. The musical styles range from swing through Latin American and Irish Folk to the soaring It’s Love and the deliciously dissonant Wrong Note Rag.
It is interesting to see how, for this production, the venue has been effectively configured on three sides. Every word of the clever dialogue and lyrics comes over without the support of personal mikes - other fringe venues please take note! It was, however, sad to see this charming production not very well attended on Tuesday night. Was it this that encouraged the cast to, occasionally, over-compensate by becoming a trifle frenetic? If so, there is no need. The show is a treat. Trust yourselves, sometimes less is more.
People who love infrequently performed classic musicals - and they do not come much better than this - should beetle down to Walthamstow post haste and catch it before it closes on October 30th.
Wonderful, Wonderful Town!
Photo: David Ovenden