Watching Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, I couldn’t help thinking about Saul Steinberg’s famous 1976 cover for The New Yorker, “View of the World from 9th Avenue.” Taking up the lower two-thirds of the page are the streets and buildings of the West Side of Manhattan. Across the Hudson River to the West is a small, foreshortened rectangle with a few mountains and incidental notations of cities like Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. This is the classic New York-centric view of the world, and that is what you get with Wonderful Town, a vintage love letter to the city that never sleeps.
Wonderful Town is not an opera; it’s a Broadway musical from 1953. However, as currently presented at LA Opera, it is what I would call a staged reading and concert. There are no set and costumes, unless you call wearing all black a costume. There are some cartoony graphics of New York projected on a screen behind the orchestra. But be not disheartened! This is all kinds of entertaining, especially as they have pulled in some high-caliber Broadway talent to work their stage magic.
Director David Lee has elevated the orchestra from the pit, and the players are arrayed across the stage. The actors sit in front, rising on cue to read their lines from books propped on lecterns. Occasionally, the lecterns are whisked away for impromptu dance scenes. So it’s a given that this is not a visual feast, nor any kind of spectacle, but that shifts the focus to the story, the performances, and especially the music. And what a delight it is to hear this talented orchestra without barriers or hindrances. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is not normally praised for its acoustics, but the unencumbered, front ’n’ center, horn-centric sound that conductor Grant Gershon was getting from his players sounded really great.
Leonard Bernstein was a rock star of classical music in his day, a towering figure in 20th-century American music. For Wonderful Town, which is set in 1930s New York, Bernstein wrote a set of songs that evokes a muscular, optimistic America, uncowed by the depredations of the Great Depression. You’ll hear bits of Charles Ives, Aaron Copeland and George Gershwin. The tone flavors of the orchestra evoke 1930s Big Band orchestras like Count Basie’s with clarinet layered over arrays of tenor and baritone saxophones, sweetened with snatches of massed violins. A full-kitted drummer and a percussionist keep us attuned to the rhythmic foundation of the songs.
The musical is based upon a book, My Sister Eileen, by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, who also wrote the book for the musical. The book, in turn, was an expansion of personal memoirs by Ruth McKenney that originally appeared in The New Yorker in the 1930s. It follows the stories of sisters Ruth and Eileen Sherwood who have left their hometown in Ohio to seek their fortunes in the big city as a writer and an actress, respectively. They move into a basement apartment in Greenwich Village and meet a succession of “characters” as they struggle to succeed. Thus, we get lyrics like, ‘Ain’t it quaint, ain’t it sweet, interesting people on Christopher Street’ or ‘Why oh why oh why oh, did I ever leave Ohio?’ (The song lyrics were crafted by another team, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.)
As mentioned, they have pulled in some talented Broadway stars for this production, the two sisters played by Faith Prince and Nikki M. James, both Tony Award winners (Prince for Guys and Dolls and James for Book of Mormon). It’s a little disconcerting to see the 59-year-old Prince cast as an ingénue, but once you get past that, her amusing persona and husky voice are a charming combination. Younger and with a little girl voice, James is more believable in her role, although I thought she shone brightest in her dancing agility and grace. The other actor that did a fantastic job with multiple roles was Roger Bart, who won a 1999 Tony for his role as Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Whether playing an Irish cop, a delivery boy or a beatnik impresario, Bart was consistently fun to watch.
The miked actors could be difficult to hear at times, and because of their position well forward of the normal front of stage, many in the audience found it necessary to lean forward a bit to see. But these are minor annoyances for a fun-filled evening with bouncy songs and generous helpings of humor. A highlight was when a group of Brazilian sailors follows Ruth home in hopes she will teach them how to do the conga. The lively dance number that follows is reprised at the end as a conga line of the entire cast makes it way up the aisles to a rousing finish. Even without having seen the actual musical, it’s moments like that that make it easy to understand why the original production won five Tony Awards. Wonderful Town, wonderful show.
—David Maurer, Culture Spot LA
Wonderful Town continues Sunday, Dec. 4, at 2 p.m. For tickets and information, visit http://www.laopera.org/season/16-17-season/Wonderful-Town/.