There are some shows which just don’t really work, but have great scores. Paint your Wagon and Candide are two that come immediately to mind.
Although the score for Wonderful Town isn’t quite in their league, it has a good three or four songs which have found a place on the concert stage, on recordings, and out of the show – ‘One Hundred Easy Ways to lose a Man’, ‘What a Waste’, ‘A Little Bit In Love’, ‘The Wrong Note Rag’ – but like the other shows I’ve listed the book serves to hamper rather than enhance the production.
Musicals without a clearly defined single protagonist are always problematic, and Wonderful Town is no exception. I think it’s telling that although the show won 5 awards at the 1953 Tony’s, none of them was for the book which is truly bonkers, and indeed what ended up on stage was, by all accounts a difficult birth.
George Abbott, the venerable Producer of this as well as more than twenty-five other original Broadway musicals said ‘[This show had]…more hysterical debate, more acrimony, more tension, and more screaming than with any other show I was ever involved with’.
Whatever the genesis, the show tells the story of a pair of sisters from Ohio who come to New York in search of fame and fortune, one, Ruth wanting to be a writer, her sister Eileen wanting to be a dancer, though for the exigencies of the ploy she actually ends up becoming a singer. We don’t really discover why they want to come to New York from Ohio, and before we can, they’re regretting it, having become housed in a noisy basement flat on Christopher Street, once the home to a prostitute.
They have interesting neighbours Wreck and Helen, and before long seem to have settled in to the crazy milieu which sees Eileen a magnet for every man in town, while Lizzie only wants to get her press card so that she can work in New York, but igniting a fire along the way in the straight-laced Mr Baker, who eventually falls for her.
The production doesn’t want for energy, and Tim McArthur keeps things moving along at a fair old lick on the basic stage which is possibly one step up from a black box. A black box covered in newspaper, possibly…
The choreography by Ian Pyle is possibly a little much at times for this small space, but there are touches of real genius, such as when the ensemble become the carriage of a subway car, complete with seating.
Although the show boasts a fine young ensemble cast, there are one or two stand-out performances, such as Ms Wofford who put me in mind of a young Maria Freidman, and Simon Burr as Wreck who has one of the textbook best comedy numbers in ‘Pass the Football’.
All credit too to All Star Productions who have made a point of seeking out rarely performed shows to mount. This may not be the best in terms of the writing, but the production’s enough to make it a very enjoyable evening in the theatre.