The orchestra pit ate the first five rows of the stalls, and it contains a grand piano, along with eight viola players, five saxophonists, twenty-two violinists, four trumpeters, three trombonists, and a whole crowd of others adding up to a grand total of sixty-seven musicians. In 2012, at a musical comedy, this is not business as usual. And those musicians aren’t just any musicians: this pit band is the Hallé, a Manchester-based symphony orchestra that has been performing since 1858, under the baton of Sir Mark Elder.
I repeat: this is the pit band.
The occasion is a rare collaboration between the Hallé and the Royal Exchange Theatre: a fully-staged production of Wonderful Town, directed by Braham Murray, one of the Exchange’s founding artistic directors, with the Hallé – all of them – as the pit band. Because all of those musicians wouldn’t fit in the Exchange’s own theatre (a glass-and-steel theatre-in-the-round, somewhat resembling the Apollo Lunar Module, that’s suspended from the supporting pillars of the former commodities exchange trading floor in the Royal Exchange building in Manchester city centre), the show is being staged in the Lyric Theatre at The Lowry. It’s apparently taken about five years for a window to open up in which all three organisations had a gap in their schedule at the same time.
It’s been worth the wait: this Wonderful Town is, well, wonderful. Last revived in Britain twenty-six years ago (in a production starring the great Maureen Lipman, whose performance in it is one of my happiest teenage theatregoing memories), Wonderful Town is possibly the quintessential golden-era New York musical comedy. Based on My Sister Eileen, a play by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov that is itself based on a collection of autobiographical short stories by Ruth McKenney, Wonderful Town’s loose plot follows the adventures of two wide-eyed sisters, Ruth and Eileen Sherwood (lightly fictionalised versions of McKenney and her own sister Eileen), who move from Columbus, Ohio to Greenwich Village, hoping to make it big in New York City. On paper, it looks as if it’s going to be a piece of inconsequential fluff, but the show has a smart, funny book by Chodorov and Fields, and smarter, funnier, lightly satirical lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, topped off with what is possibly Leonard Bernstein‘s fizziest, most beguiling music.
And it’s the music that’s the most important thing here. Under Elder’s direction, the Hallé sound absolutely terrific; they really swing, capturing all of the heat and the sweetness in Bernstein, Comden and Green’s glorious score. This is possibly the most luxurious pit band you’ll ever hear, and it’s an absolute privilege to spend an afternoon in their company (tellingly, the theatre didn’t begin to empty until after they’d finished playing the exit music). Happily, they’re matched nearly every step of the way by Braham Murray’s production, which sets the show in a vibrant, dizzyingly colourful world of forced-perspective skyscrapers and tenement fronts (the evocative sets and costumes are by Simon Higlett; there’s even a model subway train that crosses the stage on a bridge). Murray isn’t Britain’s most experienced director of musicals, but he’s a peerless director of comedy, and he’s rarely done better work than he offers here; if the transitions between dialogue and song occasionally seem a little forced, that’s probably at least partly the result of the piecemeal way in which the show was written (Bernstein, Comden and Green wrote the score in about four weeks around a book that had already been written, to replace an already-written score by Leroy Anderson and Arthur B. Horwitt, who quit the production five weeks before rehearsals were due to begin). Wonderful Town is not a musical drama like, say, West Side Story; it’s a confection, a slight charm piece, and it depends on perfectly-pitched performances from both the stars and the ensemble, and on a director who can land the frothy, slightly underwritten love story at the centre of the book while maintaining the piece’s comic momentum. While the music and the band are undoubtedly this production’s biggest attraction, Murray’s greatest achievement here is that the spectacular band in the pit does not overwhelm the rest of the show.
It helps, of course, that this Wonderful Town has a wonderful ensemble cast. Every performance is impeccable, and Andrew Wright’s choreography does a brilliant job of building show-stopping production numbers on the personality quirks of a cast that is almost entirely not made up of trained dancers. I could, though, have done without the programme note from Braham Murray in which he claims that the choreography is “so original that it is nothing like what happened before, and people who have seen [the show] before either on Broadway or in London and have seen the routines will say ‘My God, this is completely different and original and very exciting.’” – it’s good, certainly, and it’s exciting, but this is hardly the first time a choreographer has built spectacular dances around personalities rather than moves.
It helps even more that the three leads are superb. Michael Xavier’s Bob Baker, a newspaper editor who falls for one sister but ends up with the other, has an easy charm, an impressive voice, and a lovely, slightly rumpled way with a comic line, and when he finally realises he’s fallen for Ruth rather than Eileen, late in the second act, the moment is sweetly touching. Lucy Van Gasse – a trained opera singer, though she has a few musical theatre credits – is more or less perfect as Eileen, the younger, prettier, blonde sister who wants to be an actress. She has a gorgeous voice, of course – her ‘A Little Bit in Love’ is absolutely luscious – but she also has a wonderfully daffy, charming sense of comic timing, and she’s often very, very funny. The biggest surprise, though, comes from the performer in the biggest role: reality TV winner Connie Fisher as Ruth. Ms. Fisher, of course, was the winner of the BBC’s How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, and went on to play Maria in The Sound of Music in the West End and on tour. She has, however, been in the wars over the past few years; on tour with The Sound of Music she experienced severe vocal difficulties that ultimately led to surgery for a congenital vocal problem, leaving her without the ringingly clear soprano that won her her big break, and after her surgery she was told by doctors that it was possible she would never sing again. And yet here she is, dancing up a storm, landing every single laugh, singing in a strong, beautifully controlled alto, and exuding a warm charisma that somehow eluded her in The Sound of Music. There, she was a competent leading lady with a lovely voice; here, she’s a star. OK, she’s sporting an accent that seems to have bypassed Ohio entirely and landed somewhere in the Texas Panhandle, but it doesn’t matter. She comes across, more than anything else, as a deeper-voiced Olive Oyl – bright, tart, charming, gangly, funny, and utterly adorable.
The bad news? If you’re reading this, you’ve missed the Hallé, who are only playing for the first two weeks of the Manchester run. For next week’s Manchester performances and the subsequent eleven-week tour, there’ll be a seventeen-piece band in the pit, made up of musicians who have previously played with the Hallé. The cast and production are strong enough that this Wonderful Town would still be worth catching without the spectacular orchestra that played the show this afternoon, and the production’s publicity is admirably clear about which orchestra will be playing at which performance, but the smaller band will inevitably give a less glorious account of the score – which probably accounts for the very nearly sold-out house this afternoon for a show that, in this country, is hardly the best-known export from Broadway. The show, incidentally, is very lightly amplified; even with sixty-seven musicians in the pit, it doesn’t hit you in the ears the way most musicals do these days, and that’s all to the good: this production is many things, but most of all it’s an object lesson in just how crassly overamplified most musicals these days have become. And the more delicate balance of sound between the pit and the stage works entirely to the show’s advantage: this afternoon’s audience sat still and paid attention to a far greater degree than audiences at several other musical revivals I’ve attended recently. This afternoon, every note counted – but so did every word.
There’s a tantalising hint in the programme that there may be more of these collaborative productions on the horizon: in an interview, Sir Mark Elder says that one of his future ambitions is to conduct a production of Frank Loesser‘s The Most Happy Fella. This afternoon’s performance of Wonderful Town was a two-and-a-half-hour trip to musical comedy heaven. The chance to hear this kind of orchestra do this kind of work in the context of a full theatrical production rather than a concert comes around very, very rarely; if and when Elder ever gets to conduct The Most Happy Fella, I will move mountains, fly oceans, cross continents to be there.