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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Wonderful Town
Danielle de Niese (Eileen), Alysha Umphress (Ruth), Nathan Gunn (Bob Baker), Duncan Rock Wreck/Second Associate Editor), David Butt Philip (Lonigan),Ashley Riches (Guide/First Editor/Frank)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 16 & 21 December 2017, Barbican Hall, London
Libretto not included
LSO LIVE LSO0813 SACD [70:19]

Bernstein’s five-time Tony award-winning musical follows sisters Ruth and Eileen on their quest to make it big, pursuing careers in writing and acting from their cramped basement apartment in New York’s bohemian Greenwich Village. Fresh from rural Ohio, the sisters end up getting more than they bargained for, realising that life in the Big Apple is not as glamorous as it may seem. A bright and cheery love letter to the city that never sleeps and the colourful characters inhabiting it, Wonderful Town draws on Fields and Chodorov’s 1940 play My Sister Eileen, which itself is based on a series of autobiographical short storied by the ‘real-life’ Ruth McKenney.

Bernstein joined lyricists Betty Comden and Adolf Green in a New York apartment in 1953 and they finished the piece in around five weeks. The highly talented team’s labours resulted in a series of witty and tuneful songs. The music has lots of high energy and impact with a terrific Overture. In Act 1 the sisters sing the duet Ohio and this catchy highlight, appearing right near the start of the show, immediately grabs the attention. The ensuing instrumental Conquering New York is classic Bernstein with its jazzy inflections and driving rhythms. The superb What a Waste recalls Gee, Officer Krupke from West Side Story. The best numbers in Act 2 are clearly Bob and Eileen’s beautiful duet It’s Love and another rhythmically syncopated Wrong Note Rag, which is so typical of the composer. The show comes to an end with a reprise of It’s Love.

Wonderful Town is a terrific score. It may not be quite in the West Side Story class but that is Bernstein’s masterpiece. As a stand-alone composition, without any such comparison to Bernstein’s most famous score, Wonderful Town can be enjoyed in its own right as a brilliant piece of work with a high likeability factor.

Sir Simon Rattle delivers the music with marvellous swagger and the playing of the London Symphony Orchestra is dazzling and high on energy. The performance was recorded live in the Barbican and the acoustic suits the music very well. The diction of the cast is crystal clear and the bright brass and percussion sections, so important to Bernstein, are especially brilliant. The entire cast is very strong but Danielle de Niese, Alysha Umphress and Nathan Gunn deserve a special mention for their immaculate delivery of the key roles. The documentation is good but there is no libretto. Overall this is a winner.

John Whitmore

Previous review: John Quinn

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