Pros: A cozy, nostalgic revival of a 1953 musical that glitters with a fierce American idealism that has faded in the 60 years since the show’s opening.
Cons: You really feel those 60 years.
Does that great American Dream still exist? Certainly to Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, a pair of sisters from backwater town Columbus, Ohio, who are drawn to the lights and life of 1930s New York City. Eileen (Francesca Benton-Stace) is ‘the pretty one’, an aspiring actress who leaves men falling over each other in her wake; Ruth (a very sweet, suitably awkward Lizzie Wofford) is an aspiring writer who reels off stories, but can never seem to reel in a man.
Wonderful Town is set in 1935 – just as the United States came stumbling out of the Great Depression – but was first staged in 1953, long enough to recover from the shock of World War II and just as the country was disentangling itself from the Korean War. There’s an upbeat optimism that cuts through the musical as a result, a sense of light at the end of the tunnel, and that all’s well that ends well. This is what the very committed All Star Productions cast captures best, that jazzy sense of verve and the sparkle of life in a city that can feel chaotic and unwelcoming. Audience members might be stuffed shoulder to shoulder in a small upstairs theatre space, with a stripped-down set of newspaper clippings as a backdrop, but that lends to the rough-and-ready city feel – channelling a bit of that enforced intimacy on the New York subway.
Despite the shabby shoebox apartment, the failed job searches, the leering suitors and a general lack of money, Ruth and Eileen roll up their sleeves and attempt to make good in the big city. And New York is never without its gritty charm with its parade of character types, from the naive jock next door to the foxy former tenant to the scheming landlord. It’s a story not unfamiliar to the millions who have, like the Sherwood sisters, journeyed to city centres around the world in search of a better life, but who may find that sense of charm somewhat diminished in our contemporary world.
Wonderful Town showcases a white, white America, and the only ‘foreigners’ to appear – a conga line of gleeful Brazilian sailors – are portrayed as a simple-minded herd of toddlers; it seems that an inability to speak English was, in the 1950s, confused with stupidity. It was also a time when men in power could get away with just about anything, starting with one too many inappropriate fondles (mostly of Eileen). These issues still have a resonance today, with a global migrant crisis on our doorstep and renewed efforts to combat sexual assault and promote gender equality. However, the musical skips lightly ahead and doesn’t look back, making it more of a fading snapshot of history than a reinvigorating reminder from the past.
Not that one could fault this endearing ensemble for trying. They are a veritable explosion of energy and affection, vaulting over hammy moments with their sheer likeability. Together, they make New York City its own character in the production, with its distinctive long-vowelled accent and its unceasing rhythm – admirably, the pace never flags throughout the 2.5-hour show.
Wonderful Town is all bright lights and infectious buoyancy, a symbol of a time where darkness and cynicism hadn’t yet crept into the American city musical (think Stephen Sondheim’s Company or John Kander’s Chicago). As an arrival city, New York has become markedly more complex and diverse in its makeup over the years, but New Yorkers will probably agree with the heart of the musical: it’s still a wonderful town.
Authors: Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, based on the play My Sister Eileen by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov and The Short Stories by Ruth McKenney
Composer: Leonard Bernstein
Lyricists: Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Director and Musical Stager: Tim McArthur
Musical Director: Aaron Clingham
Choreographer: Ian Pyle
Producer: Andrew Yon
Box Office: 020 8520 8674
Booking Link: http://www.yeolderoseandcrowntheatrepub.co.uk/index.php/events/wonderful-town/
Booking Until: 30 October 2016