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Leonard Bernstein: Wonderful Town
Danielle de Niese (Eileen), Alysha Umphress (Ruth), Nathan Gunn (Bob Baker), Duncan Rock (Wreck, Second associate editor), David Butt Philip (Lonigan), Ashley Riches (Guide, First editor, Frank), Kevin Brewis (Third cop, First man, Cadet, Villager), Stephen John Davis (First cop, Chick Clark), Flora Dawson (Violet), Soophia Foroughi (Second woman), Andrew Keelan (Second cop, Second man), Jan Quinn (First woman), Michael Baxter (Fourth cop), London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Simon Halsey (chorus master), Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)
Live recording: The Barbican, London, England (December 16 and 21, 2017) – 70’19
London Symphony Orchestra # LSO 0183 (SACD) – Booklet in English, French and German (Distributed by PIAS)

Anyone who’s been actively involved in musicals reflects upon an experience both enriching and enthralling...such is the case for this reviewer, and specifically Wonderful Town. This Leonard Bernstein musical, though not as memorable (tune-wise) as its earlier companion, On the Town (1944), the Massachusetts-native’s calico concoction teems with unbridled energy, compact form and clever craftsmanship. And even though the music swirls around a ridiculous plotline, Wonderful Town still lives inside its own timeless capsule.

Sir Simon Rattle’s impressionable take of New York City is tightly packaged with salty rhythms and markedly innovative tones. At times, the tempo gets muddied, and it could use more juice. Within their own label, the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra is mildly understated which could, otherwise, easily eclipse into a schmaltz-state. It appears the maestro’s improvisational skills incorporate delightful flourishes in several numbers that add a delicate silver lining. On the other hand, occasional pockets of dialogue leading into a song are, at times, soporific.

Wonderful Town’s plentitude of colorful, seedy characters pop out of the pages from Joseph Fields’ and Jerome Chodorov’s play, My Sister Eileen, freshly communicated via Bernstein’s avenue, “Christopher Street.” Within this introductory group number, Ashley Riches’ modest emcee narration molds the array of sordid characters lurking about Greenwich Village’s pungent quarters. Much of the musical’s overall likeability can be credited to lyrics of duo Comden and Green: their striking words are uplifted by Bernstein’s brilliant notes. “Something out of the ordinary”, Wonderful Town is a quirky two hour catch of nonsensical comedy. Sans dialogues, this condensed version clocks in at just over one hour.

Danielle de Niese transitions easily into the Broadway © arena, flourishing with amiable softness and creamy timbre. Her consistent lightness never leaves the show...effortless, bubbly vibrato peels into the air like delicately iced wafers. The “Conversation Piece” swiftly ends in a crowning moment of coloratura for Mlle. de Niese to nicely spotlight the ease of her flexible register.

The two Ohioans’ naïveté has added brightness with the pairing of Alysha Umphress, the aspiring writer, Ruth, whose musical numbers are half-spoken. Her equation has a nice parallel to that of Rosalind Russell (though Mlle. Russell’s raspy, gravelly grounding is missing.) This role is well-suited for Mlle. Umphress even if it doesn’t ring with enough edginess…take note, however, for her jive attitude inside “Swing!” burns!

Momentum on this CD is slow to build: Act I progresses tentatively with Act II suddenly taking off like a rocket. Part of the redeeming qualities can be attributed to Simon Halsey’s chorus (from the all-male folksy “My Darlin’ Eileen”, to the brassy “Swing!”, the ebullient wrap-happy “It’s Love” and quirky “Wrong Note Rag.”)

Opera’s ‘barihunk’, Nathan Gunn is timeless...his Bob Baker has macho attitude, sensitive persuasion, is charming to the core and it is simply perfect for this Bernstein work. Duncan Rock “rocks” as he stridently struts (and “speaks”) his one and only ditty, “Pass the Football.”

Effervescence has a perceptible pop, though the characters’ overall dramatic Broadway © weight breathes shallow. Similarly, a skosh of bass heft could have garnered an added punch. All in all, the recording catches the wave of sassy vibe.

It’s hard to dismiss the unforgettable 1953 Original Broadway © Cast Recording featuring Edie Adams, Rosalind Russell and the velvety voice of Finnish singer George Gaynes...this rendition is a landmark find and indelible. This 2017 performance has similar attributes, but the remarks don’t lift the listener over the top.

Christie Grimstad




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