Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, May 8
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.