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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Wonderful Town (1953)
Excerpts from the Musical Comedy in Two Acts
Ruth Sherwood/Violet ... Kim Criswell
Eileen Sherwood ... Audra McDonald
Robert Baker ... Thomas Hampson
Wreck/Guide/First Editor/Frank Lippincott ... Brent Barrett
European Voices/Simon Halsey)
Berlin Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, Philharmonie, Berlin, 30-31 December 2002
EUROARTS DVD 2052299 [76:00]

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Leonard Bernstein enthusiasts may recall that, in 1998, EMI issued an audio recording (EMI Classics 7743 5 56753 2 3 review) by Simon Rattle, of Wonderful Town with the London Voices, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and the same four soloists featured on this DVD. The present DVD offers a live performance recorded in Berlin as a 2002-03 New Year celebration concert. Rattle and his soloists, choir, orchestra - and even the audience to judge by their enthusiastic participation in the Conga encore - are in merry festive mood. Certainly Rattle is animated throughout, sheer joy reflected in his face.

Wonderful Town opened on Broadway in 1953 and ran for 559 performances. It starred Rosalind Russell as Ruth, and Edith Adams as Eileen. Today, Wonderful Town is largely overshadowed by Bernstein’s other stage works like On the Town and West Side Story which is a pity as this sparkling Rattle performance proves. Its story is about two sisters from Ohio and their wacky adventures in New York’s Greenwich Village. Eileen’s beauty enslaves the men, including half the police force in the very witty ‘My Darlin’ Eileen’ in which they insist she is Irish because they think she "comes from Killarney." But Sister Ruth just wants to become a successful writer.

Bernstein’s exuberant, jazz-based score is big and breezy especially in the colourful celebration of the larger-than-life characters of ‘Christopher Street’. The score also embraces the conga, swing and rag forms and even the form that characterised the sort of song that spilled from the lips of Roy Rogers or Gene Autry as the sisters Ruth and Eileen sing ‘Ohio’ and rue abandoning their safe rural backwater for the uncertainties of New York.. All the singers are excellent, attacking their characterisations with great enthusiasm and commitment, and relishing the sharp-witted lyrics of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Audra McDonald as Eileen is sweetly sentimental in ‘A Little Bit in Love’ while the animated, raucous, gravelly-voiced Kim Criswell, as Ruth, is wickedly funny in ‘One hundred easy ways to lose a man’. The ever-versatile and impressive Thomas Hampson is Howard Keel-like romantic in ‘It’s Love’. Brent Barrett is wickedly funny singing as the knuckle-headed Wreck, and commenting that he might be as thick as six planks but he "gets through college and ‘passes’ exams, and gets the best jobs because he can ‘Pass the football’".

Incidentally, Wonderful Town, was based on the play My Sister Eileen, which in turn, was filmed by Columbia, in 1942, under that name, starring Rosalind Russell (Ruth) and Janet Blair (Eileen). It was filmed again in 1955 using the same title, this time with Betty Garrett, Janet Leigh, Jack Lemmon, Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall. Columbia were too mean to fork out for the winning stage-score and engaged Jule Styne and Leo Robin to write a substitute. It was no match for this Bernstein original.

Three cheers then for Lenny and Simon Rattle et al. This is wonderful light entertainment for a summer’s evening. It really is a Wonderful Town. It goes straight to the top of my list of favourite recordings for 2005.

Ian Lace


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