Time and time again, New York City has proven itself to be the most knee-slapping town on the landscape of American musical theatre. Bobbing her hair and heading East, Millie Dillmount took Manhattan as a thoroughly modern flapper in 1922; here, too, in the gutters of Skid Row, Seymour Krelborn made the acquaintance of a new breed of fly-trap and got sweet-talked into feeding it blood in the gloriously gruesome Little Shop of Horrors.
Perhaps more so than any other composer, Leonard Bernstein captured the noise and frenzy of old New York. In its bustling streets, Bernstein saw a rousing symphony waiting to be scored; in the sounding alarms of its railways, he heard the noise of a brass section. Here, in the shadow of his oft-revived masterpiece, West Side Story, sits Wonderful Town, a forgotten gem from the fifties, wonderfully reinvented for this national tour by director Braham Murray.
Meet Eileen and Ruth, Ohio sisters who up sticks from the sticks and head for New York. Hoping to make their names in the Big Apple as actress and author, the pair settle amongst the artists and poets of Greenwich, living hand to mouth amongst the colourful inhabitants of Christopher Street.
Murray has the command of a truly exceptional, West End calibre cast. Each and every member of the ensemble is a star in their own right. Andrew Wright's choreography is challenging and full of fun, whilst James Burton's musical direction is amongst the very best in touring theatre. The combination of Burton's orchestration, Wright's movement and Simon Higlett's multi-dimensional set design make for a perfect snapshot of an era in flux.
With the problem of Maria solved after her run in The Sound of Music, Connie Fisher turns to the enigma of Wonderful Town's Ruth. Her performance is witty, well-sung and has a energy and flexibility that would make the hair under Maria's wimple curl.
Fisher finds a perfectly partner in Lucy Van Gasse, a performer with an exquisite operatic range and sweetly wicked tone. Perhaps the most arresting performance of the night comes from Michael Xavier. A profoundly powerful voice in contemporary musical theatre, Xavier captures the Hollywood glamour of the Crosbies and Sinatras of the glory days without losing a sense of the modern man.
Every wonderful town, of course, has its dodgy back-alleys. Though the cast meet Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov's book with character and colour, several of the play's scenes feel outdated and unnecessarily slow. Thankfully, the cast maintain the momentum which the script lacks in such fleeting moments.
And yet this is in no way to the detriment of an otherwise excellent show. Whilst the musical has been around 1953, its exceptional cast, high-production values and glorious orchestrations make this Wonderful Town feel as groundbreaking and exciting as it might have on its original opening night.