Review: Wonderful Town at Theatre Royal Newcastle

HERE’S a show that really took me on a roller-coaster ride.

The cast of Wonderful Town. Photo by Alastair Muir

HERE’S a show that really took me on a roller-coaster ride. It bowled me over, then started to annoy me and finally won me over.

I saw “music by Leonard Bernstein” and maybe I was thinking of West Side Story – great songs, great plot (with a little inspiration from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet).

Wonderful Town, based on a play which was based on a book, tells of two sisters, hicks from the sticks of Columbus, Ohio, who come to the wonderful town of Greenwich Village, New York, and try to cut it among the actors, writers and shysters who make up its bohemian citizenry.

Eileen’s a man-eating, Monroe- esque blonde with a squeaky, flirty voice. Sister Ruth, the plain one, wants to be a writer.

They arrive, are tricked into taking a dingy basement flat and, really, there’s not much more you need to know. It’s a plot so flimsy that I lost it.

But not before the song Why, oh why, oh why, oh – Why did I ever leave Ohio? had sent my eyebrows flying towards the ceiling (metaphorically speaking).

What joker comes up with lyrics like that outside a nursery rhyme? Hands up Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

A shame, I was thinking, because the set, the costumes and the dancing had promised so much.

And I was immediately taken with Connie Fisher as Ruth, the foil to Lucy van Gasse’s Eileen.

Unrecognisable as the goody-two- shoes Maria in The Sound of Music, and with a voice which has dropped to a characterful contralto following a condition which required surgery, she has developed into an endearing character actress who dances brilliantly and can still sing.

After an interval bemoaning what might have been, my mood hit another stomach-churning incline.

For reasons I’d forgotten or never properly taken in, Eileen is in prison where the warders are her willing slaves. And they’re all Irish. What?

Oh, to hell with plot and logic.

They all dance a jig and it’s absolutely brilliant and funny.

I’m smiling broadly and the Ohio song is a distant memory.

After that comes an even more fantastic swing number and the whole thing struts, sashays and high kicks towards its bonkers climax in a fantastic, mesmerising display of brilliantly choreographed dancing.

You can’t leave a theatre smiling and complain you’ve had a bad time and I have to confess I’d watch that second half again and again. Bernstein clearly was a genius and Comden and Green must be forgiven.

Wonderful Town won a handful of Tonys when it opened on Broadway in 1953 and finally I could understand why.

David Whetstone

 
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