Wonderful Town

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, May 8

WT Promo-90

Virginia Gay and Georgina Walker who played sisters Ruth and Eileen in Wonderful Town. Photo: supplied

I didn’t see the semi-staged concert version of Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing at the Sydney Opera House in November – the first collaboration between Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre – but I heard good things.

I was, however, lucky enough to catch the second of two performances of Wonderful Town, their second collaboration– and what a complete delight it was.

Wonderful Town is an effervescent, light-hearted musical comedy featuring a joyous, melodic score by Leonard Bernstein. Written in six weeks in 1953 (nine years after Bernstein’s first musical On the Town), it mixes classical, popular and jazz musical styles, including the electric, syncopated Wrong Note Jazz, which foreshadowed West Side Story three years later.

The show had its roots in a series of short stories written by author/journalist Ruth McKenney published in the New Yorker magazine about her experiences and the colourful characters she and her sister Eileen met when they lived in a Greenwich Village basement apartment. These evolved into a book in 1938 called My Sister Eileen, which was made into a film starring Rosalind Russell.

The musical, Wonderful Town, features a well-structured book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov and neat, witty lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It opened on Broadway in 1953, also starring Rosalind Russell, and won five Tony Awards including Best Musical. A good, old-fashioned musical comedy, it has such charm that it’s surprising it’s so little known.

Set in the 1930s, it focuses on two sisters who leave a backwater in Ohio for the bright lights and broader horizons of New York. Ruth, who is hoping to become a writer, is smart, strong and protective of her younger sister Eileen yet awkward when it comes to men. Eileen, who has men falling at her feet, dreams of being a performer.

Jason Langley directs with great clarity on a minimal set (a few flats, the odd table and chair). Designer Brendan Hay has added plenty of colour and period style with his costuming including elegant frocks for the ladies and some natty, patterned trousers for the men.

Dean Vince has done a great job with the choreography which ranges from a hilarious Irish jig (complete with a wash of green lighting) to a conga and some snazzy jazz moves.

Virginia Gay is an absolute star as Ruth. She has such a perfect feel for this style of musical comedy, caressing the tunes with lovely, smooth vocals and landing all the humour with immaculate timing . She brings the house down with Ruth’s comic song 100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man, a very funny but pointed number that you can imagine others picking up to perform in cabaret. Acting wise she captures Ruth’s intelligence, independent spirit and sardonic sense of humour as well as her lack of confidence with men

Newcomer Georgina Walker, who recently graduated from WAAPA, has a nice bright soprano and a perky presence as Eileen. Making her professional mainstage debut in Wonderful Town, she shows great promise.

Scott Irwin shows his versatility in several roles including Bob Barker, the assistant editor who falls for Ruth without realising it at first, and their landlord Mr Appopulous, a self-regarding, pompous artist. A fine singer and actor, Irwin is the perfect foil to Gay as the decent Bob and sings numbers such as “It’s Love” and “Quiet Girl” with an effortless charm.

Aside from Gay and Walker, all the cast – which also includes Scott Morris, Dean Vince, Nicholas Starte, Megan Wilding and Beth Daly – play several parts There is one hilarious moment where Irwin walks off stage as one character and comes straight back on as another to the delight of the audience. Conductor Brett Weymark even plays a cameo role as nightclub owner Speedy Valenti from the podium.

The choir, sitting in the choir stalls and boxes on either side of the stage, are all dressed in their own outfits of red, black and white. Langley involves them in the action by having them do some bopping, arm-waving choreography from their seats. He also has a few of them come on stage in crowd scenes which is a bit messy but it does generate a lovely sense of community involvement.

The orchestra plays with exuberant gusto under Weymark, serving up an exciting big band sound, and there are plenty of ear-worms in the score most notably the gorgeous, lilting It’s Love – in fact, half the audience seemed to be singing It’s Love as they left the theatre, big smiles on their faces.

This kind of collaboration between Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Squabbalogic is a great initiative, giving us the opportunity to see a rarely performed musical in a semi-staged production with an orchestra, a large choir and a top cast (performing off book).

Together with Neglected Musicals – who are already doing a great job of presenting small-scale rehearsed readings of rarely seen musicals, performed book in hand at the intimate Hayes Theatre Co – it’s a very welcome addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene.

The Book Club; Mothers and Sons

The Ensemble Theatre currently has two plays running in repertory: Roger Hall’s The Book Club and Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons.

Amanda Muggleton in The Book Club. Photo: Thomas Blunt

Amanda Muggleton in The Book Club. Photo: Thomas Blunt

Amanda Muggleton is in her element in The Book Club, giving a big, warm, generous, comic performance that has the audiences in the palm of her hand and frequently in stitches.

The 1999 one-woman play by British-born New Zealand playwright Roger Hall was first adapted by Rodney Fisher for Muggleton in 2008. Fisher has updated it again for this season with more recent references to books including Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda and Geraldine Brooks’s March. He has also cut the script back so that it now runs 100 minutes without interval.

Muggleton plays Deborah, an upper-middle-class Sydney housewife with too much time on her hands. Her daughters have left home and she has little in common with her sports-obsessed lawyer husband Wally, currently training for a marathon.

Realising she’s bored, a friend invites her to join a book group. When it’s her turn to host, Deb invites local author Michael (quite how she manages it is never explained, but no matter) who spices her life up in a way she had previously only fantasised about with Martin Amis.

Narrating the show directly to the audience, Muggleton plays Deborah and all the women in the book club – kindly Welshwoman Millie, snobbish Eastern suburbs socialite Meredith, sweet pregnant Caroline, Swiss PR executive Steffi who never reads more than the first chapter, and so on. She also plays Wally and Michael, morphing easily between all the different characters and accents.

Muggleton gives an exuberant, joyous, energetic performance that has her literally bouncing around the stage at times. Her warm interactions with the audience are quick smart, picking up on any reaction. On opening night, an elderly gent fell asleep in the front row, which she seized on for some gentle ribbing.

Directed by Fisher, who also designed the set, The Book Club is a lightweight entertainment but given such a consummate, gorgeous performance by Muggleton it’s a complete delight. The opening audience loved her and leapt to their feet – an unusual accolade at the Ensemble.

Mothers and Sons

Anne Tenney, Tim Draxl, Jason Langley and Thomas Fisher in Mothers and Sons. Photo: Clare Hawley

Anne Tenney, Tim Draxl, Jason Langley and Thomas Fisher in Mothers and Sons. Photo: Clare Hawley

Terrence McNally’s 2014 Broadway play Mothers and Sons canvasses the losses and gains for America’s gay community since the AIDS epidemic including same-sex marriage and gay parenting.

The play begins with two people gazing rather awkwardly out of the window of a smart New York apartment: Cal (Jason Langley) and Katharine (Anne Tenney) who, it transpires is the mother of Andre, a promising actor and Cal’s former lover who died 19 years ago of AIDS.

Quite why Katharine has decided to make an appearance now is not clear, but she is one embittered woman. Having barely seen Andre after he came out, she has never been able to deal with his death and is still in denial about his sexuality informing Cal that: “Andre wasn’t gay when he came to New York. He came to New York to be an actor.”

Cal meanwhile has moved on. He is now married to the younger Will (Tim Draxl) who he met eight years after Andre died and they have a six-year old son Bud (Thomas Fisher/Connor Burke).

Mothers and Sons is one of those plays that feels a little too overtly like a staged debate, written so that the playwright can air issues close to his heart and needing discussion. Though beautifully played by Langley, Cal is too nice a character in some ways (it’s hard to believe he is a ruthless money-maker as he supposedly is, working in some vaguely defined financial role) so he never really lets rip but remains reasonable and polite in the face of Katharine’s homophobic remarks. As a result, the emotional stakes don’t feel high enough and there is little dramatic tension. This is compounded by the gentle pace of Sandra Bates’s production, much of which unfolds at the same level.

The device of having Will and Cal alternatively go off-stage to oversee Bud’s (very long) bath, also feels rather clunky.

Still, it’s a bold choice for the Ensemble and certainly tunes into issues that are very much in the zeitgeist at the moment, putting a human face to debates such as same-sex marriage.

Running 90-minutes, Mothers and Sons is well staged and well performed. It’s an enjoyable night of theatre, though it doesn’t have quite the emotional and dramatic impact that it might.

Mothers and Sons runs until September 27 and The Book Club runs until October 3, with performances at various times. Bookings: www.ensemble.com.au or 02 9929 0644