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BWW Review: WONDERFUL TOWN, Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre, 19 October 2016

In 1935, Ruth and Eileen move from the Midwest to the Big Apple, looking for work, for love and that specific excitement that only a world city can bring. They soon find digs in a grotty apartment in bohemian Greenwich Village and meet the kinds of characters anyone who has seen Cabaret or Breakfast at Tiffany's will recognise - people pushing The Edges of social and legal norms, but good-hearted, well-meaning and rubbing along the way city folk always do. Of course, the sisters don't have everything their own way and initially want to go home to Ohio, but - this show debuted in 1953, when Broadway caught the nation's mood for optimism - they're soon New Yorkers living the dream.

Corny? Schmaltzy? Far-fetched? Of course it is, but this is the New York of Woody Allen's Manhattan, not Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver - the metropolis as a liberator of repressed feelings, a forum for self-expression, a skyscrapered land of opportunities. And, even in 2016, I'm buying that.

Lizzie Wofford (Ruth) and Francesca Benton-Stace (Eileen) make a pair of charismatic and wholly credible sisters. Wofford times the Katherine Hepburn-esque wisecracks and fights for her place as a sharp, intelligent woman, in marvellously light but biting songs like "One Hundred Ways To Lose A Man". Benton-Stace has the looks to charm anyone she chooses and, even if the guys are a bit foolish around her, she has a nature that exploits her "gift" only as much as she has to (and she nails her songs perfectly to boot).

These two splendid leads get strong support from the ensemble, in which Simon Burr excels as the nice but dim jock and Hugo Joss Catton gives a fine turn as nervous Frank, one of Eileen's many suitors. Aneurin Pascoe is, perhaps, a little too thinly drawn as Baker, the man who is obviously destined for Ruth, but maybe that's to let the two gals shine - and shine they surely do.

If some of the source material (drawing on play My Sister Eileen by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov and The Short Stories by Ruth McKenney) has dated with the passage of time, that cannot be said of the work of the three Broadway legends responsible for the music. Leonard Bernstein's distillation of New York into musical form would reach its zenith four years later in West Side Story, but there's plenty of melody and dissonance here, a aurAl Jackson Pollock breaking through in the score and, especially, a superbly realised, almost expressionistic, representation of a subway ride in Act One, worth the ticket price alone. This music is so rich that it felt mean to give it just a piano in Aaron Clingham's otherwise clear musical direction.

That said, with just the keyboard for competition, one of fringe theatre's greatest problems was solved - we could hear all the words. And what words! Adolph Green and Betty Comden have their fingerprints all over Broadway's and Hollywood's pantheon of musicals and their signature wit runs through every number in the show, the standouts being the Irish policemen's lament for the Emerald Isle, "My Darlin' Eileen" and the final confession of true feelings, "It's Love". Harnessing the power of simple English, accessible to all, was their genius, and boy does it show.

There's probably a deep theoretical piece to be written about the representation of two independent young women making their way in the New York of the early 1950s, or of the influence of the very good Wonderful Town on the all-time great West Side Story, or even the changing role of the journalist in society today, but sod all that for now. This is a feel-good show about America when many of us are desperate to feel good about America again - so join the Brazilian sailors (yep, they were in The Village too), and let's do the American Conga!

Wonderful Town continues at The Olde Rose And Crowne until 30 October.

Photo David Ovenden

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