Star rating – 8/10
Wonderful Town may not be the best known or even the best musical written by Leonard Bernstein, that honour must surely go to his glorious West Side Story. But it is nevertheless a slick and extremely entertaining light hearted production, with a simply gorgeous musical score. It is set in 1935 New York, with two sisters making their way from the Ohio to Greenwich Village to follow their dreams – one to be a writer, and the other to be a singer.
It is a very successful collaboration between the Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, and the Royal Exchange Theatre, with direction from its Artistic Director Braham Murray. Put those together with the name of TV instant hit celebrity fame girl Connie Fisher in one of the lead roles, and this will surely be a hit.
In truth Fisher, returning from surgery on her vocal chords, is not the strongest singer in the cast as Ruth the smart would-be writer, and her voice now has a slightly strange deep quality that is nothing like Maria. But her performance skills are exemplary, with great timing, acting and musicality. The plaudits for the singing in this musical must go to Lucy Van Gasse as Eileen, who plays her blonde sister who has a winning way with every man she meets. And also to Michael Xavier, who is brilliant as Bob Baker, the magazine editor who slowly falls in love with the serious and determined Ruth. Both Van Gasse and Xavier have beautiful, clear, strong voices which soar above the stage.
It may not have the most memorable plot in musical history, and it may not have well known sing-a-long numbers either, but it is engaging and brilliantly choreographed, with great support from the ensemble cast with their perfect timing. There is one very funny scene featuring a load of New York cops doing Irish dancing – not a sight you will see very often I would hazard a guess. The sets are very effective, and give a great sense of the eclectic life to be found in their adopted artistic neighbourhood.
And it felt very special to have the talents of the Hallé for the evening to showcase the sumptuous music, and nice to see Sir Mark getting right into the spirit of the show, even having his own lines. They will be replaced when this production goes on national tour so the Lowry audiences are especially privileged to hear them play. Overall this musical is one to savour in the light hearted spirit in which it was written, and that’s no bad thing.