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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Wonderful Town (1953)
Rafaëlle Cohen - Eileen; Jasmine Roy - Ruth; Maxime de Toledo - Bob Baker; Duncan Rock – Thomas Boutilier - Wreck; Franck Lopez - Lonigan; Dalia Constantin -Helen; Lauren van Kempen – Violet; Alyssa Landry – Mrs Wade; Appopolous/1st Editor – Jacques Verzier; Guide – Scott Emerson; Frank – Sinan Bertrand; Chick Clark - Julien Salvia.
Dancers, Chorus & Orchestra of L’Opéra de Toulon/Larry Blank
Stage Direction – Olivier Bénézech
Choreography – Johan Nus
Scenography – Luc Londiveau
Costume design – Frédéric Olivier
Lighting – Marc-Antoine Vellutini
Video – Gilles Papain
rec. live January 2018, L’Opéra de Toulon, France
Sound Format 2.0 PCM Stereo & 5.1 Dolby Digital; Picture Format 1 DVD9 PAL colour 16:9; Region code 2: Subtitles English, French & German. Booklet English & French

Towards the end of 2018 I reviewed an audio performance of Wonderful Town conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. This BelAir release is something very different. For one thing, the Rattle performance was a concert version of the show, sung by classically trained voices. Here we have a fully staged version of the show – its French premiere – sung, I believe, by the kind of music theatre singers for whom the show was envisaged.

There’s much to like about this Toulon performance. The cast is a strong one – dominated by the excellent, sassy Ruth of Jasmine Roy – though for my taste Maxime de Toledo is somewhat underpowered vocally in the role of Bob Baker. I also wonder if Rafaëlle Cohen doesn’t overplay Eileen as a dumb blonde – but presumably this was done under director’s orders. The choreography is lively and inventive and the musical performance has an abundance of energy. That’s despite the fact that every time we see conductor Larry Blank he appears to be doing nothing more than beating time. Animated he is not, but the orchestra still delivers Bernstein’s score in a colourful and snappy way.

Readers may well be sensing a ‘but’. In fact, there are two ‘buts’. The Rattle audio performance focussed simply on the music and so reminded us that there are some great numbers in Wonderful Town – ‘Ohio’, ‘One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man’, ‘It’s Love’. However, seeing a full production of the show draws attention to what lies between the musical numbers. Frankly, I found the story and dialogue pretty dated.

However, my main cause for unease lies in the production. Director Olivier Bénézech opens a brief booklet note by telling us that “we started off with a very clear-cut vision: no referencing to anything ‘retro’”. That’s all well and good, but the visual results strike me as something of a visual mish-mash. The costumes, in particular, are a mess: why, for example, is the Official who greets Ruth at the Brooklyn Dockyard dressed in a uniform cap and jacket worthy of a banana republic but also a pair of knee-length shorts which appear to have a pattern on them? The chorus and dancers who populate Christopher Street are dressed in all manner of costumes, many of them exaggeratedly whacky, and this is no doubt done to emphasise the melting-pot, cosmopolitan aspect of 21st century New York but I think the point is made excessively. For me, one of the costumier’s weakest moments comes when Wreck is seen doing the ironing for Ruth and Eileen wearing a pink pinafore and the shoulder pads that American football players wear. Poor Thomas Boutilier, who takes the part well, looks simply ridiculous.

The direction itself is often clumsy with exaggerated point-making. Characters such as Appopolous and Chick Clark are crudely drawn – for which I don’t blame the cast members, I hasten to add. There are the inevitable passing visual references to Donald Trump; perhaps this is considered de rigeur. I’m no Trump admirer but, even allowing for the fact that Bernstein would certainly have been a Trump opponent, this seems to me to be to be just a tired cliché. There’s also surely a clear reference to the “Me too” movement, when we see Ruth briefly subjected to some sexual harassment in a magazine office: how necessary was that? In short, I thought the director and his conceits were obtrusive.

I readily acknowledge that others may be less distracted by aspects of the design and direction. If so, then there’s much to enjoy here. The performance is spirited and committed and everyone onstage seems to be having a ball, which is just what you want. I never feel comfortable with the Police Station scene in Act II. The cod Irishness with which New York’s Finest are portrayed was overdone by the show’s creators and in this performance the scene is further hampered because the Cops have unconvincing accents. On the other hand, the deliberately awkward ‘Conversation Piece’ scene in Act I, which is the other weak number in the show, comes off much better when you can see it being acted out – it was nowhere near as satisfactory in the Rattle audio performance where there could be no visual aspect.

The undoubted star of the show is Jasmine Roy with her worldly-wise portrayal of Ruth. Her sassy rendition of ‘One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man’ is expertly judged and she’s an excellent foil to Rafaëlle Cohen’s gullible Eileen. Maxime de Toledo hasn’t got the vocal charisma to do justice to ‘It’s Love’ in Act II but he’s rather better suited to ‘A Quiet Girl’ in Act I. The smaller parts are well done with some cast members taking more than one role.

The video direction of this stage production is very good and the sound quality is similarly successful – the performers all wear discreet microphones. Though English is among the subtitle options offered I found I didn’t need the subtitles – the cast put the sung and spoken texts across with excellent clarity. The booklet contains a good number of colour stills from the performance, which is great, though information about the show itself is no more than adequate.

I wanted to like this performance more than the director would allow. For me, this was a classic case of the production getting in the way of an otherwise enjoyable performance. My wife, who watched the film once with me, was similarly unimpressed. It’s good to report, though, that the Toulon audience, who were seeing the French premiere of Wonderful Town, clearly enjoyed what they saw and heard.
John Quinn

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