Review: Wonderful Town, Milton Keynes Theatre

“Here we live, here we love, this is the place for self-expression”

Providing a much needed, strong reminder that large-scale musical revivals can come from north of the Watford Gap as well as below, Wonderful Town marked a major collaboration between Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, The Hallé Orchestra and The Lowry on this Leonard Bernstein show, which I have to admit to never having heard of before. As many a musical that has gone before and come after it, it is gossamer-light in plot but this is more than made up for with a richly evocative score, some nifty design and best of all, sparkling choreography from Andrew Wright who is now consistently making the case to be considered one of the best choreographers working in the country.

Connie Fisher and Lucy Van Gasse play Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, sisters from Ohio who are determined to escape their boring lives and move to New York City. Of course, on arriving in the Big Apple, following their dream ain’t quite as easy as it seems but in their quest for success, romance and a free meal or two, they meet and charm a wide range of colourful new friends and neighbours who help them through their trials. And matching the creative and production expertise on hand, director Braham Murray assembled a cracking ensemble which included particular favourites around these parts (albeit for different reasons) Michael Xavier and Tiffany Graves.

As I said, the plot is light and frothy but handled here with much care to show off Wonderful Town as a neglected but well worthy part of the Golden Age of Broadway canon. Fisher and Van Gasse play off each other beautifully both in acting and singing and though Fisher may be the better known, it was Van Gasse who really sparkled for me with a devilishly witty charm. Xavier brought his customary charisma to bear as leading man and editor Bob Baker and Graves reminded me of just how much I like her style as part of a fun pairing with Nic Greenshields. Joseph Alessi, Sevan Stephan and Haydn Oakley also stood out with their supporting roles.

But the real star of the show is Wright’s choreography. Cleverly inventive, frequently witty and crucially, thoroughly connected to the narrative of the show in that it is as much a story-telling device as anything else. The chorus of cops was a particular delight, the conga lots of fun, I wanted to watch the show again right away to make sure I hadn’t missed anything in the routines. To be sure, this isn’t a perfect show: the first half dawdles a little too much and Bernstein’s score doesn’t quite have the immediacy of his other more famous hits (though how much of this is down to unfamiliarity with the tunes, I’m not sure). But in the grand scheme of things, these were quite minor quibbles in what emerged as a cracking piece of musical theatre which ought to be transferred to London, after the end of its national tour natch, to show off some of the best of Manchester. 

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes
Booking until 28th April

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