The Leonard Bernstein centennial is fast approaching my friends and by August of 2018 arts organizations worldwide will have unleashed a blitzkrieg of Lenny unto a (hopefully) indebted and (likely by then) musically exhausted public. The first shot across the bow appeared over the weekend from L.A. Opera with their inspired concert staging of his musical-comedy bouquet to New York, Wonderful Town.
The genesis of ‘Wonderful Town’ is a fairly fascinating convergence of opportunity and coincidence that started with the the play My Sister Eileen written by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov. It took the popular autobiographical stories of Ruth McKenney that had appeared in the New Yorker magazine and translated them into a long-running stage hit in 1940 and then a wildly successful film adaptation starring Rosalind Russell for Columbia Pictures.
Fast forward 10 years and our girl Roz began to notice that since she’s turned 40 her film offers are thin on the ground and thought it was time to take her show on the road. So sometime after honing her skills in a smash road company tour of John Van Druten’s Bell, Book and Candle, Ms. Russell was approached by producer Bobby Fryer and Joe Fields to star in a proposed musical adaptation of Eileen.
Having secured the intent of none other than George Abbott to direct they all attended an audition of the score by Leroy Anderson and Arnold B. Horwitt which was found so seriously wanting that the two gentlemen were promptly paid and sent packing. Abbott himself then called upon theatre wizards Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write the book and lyrics who in turn said they would do it if he could get Bernstein to write the score. Abbott commanded them immediately to Bernstein’s apartment to secure his services.
Our Lenny had recently sworn a solemn oath to his conducting mentor Serge Koussevitzky that he would never again waste his gifts dabbling on Broadway. So naturally he said ‘”yes” immediately. With the later addition of Jerome Robbins, for choreography and tightening of the staging, the entire On the Town team of nearly a decade earlier were reunited. Book and score were written in a mere five weeks (slackers by Rossinian standards) and after less than a month of previews in New Haven and Boston a smash hit landed on Broadway that ran 559 performances, toured, and was even produced for television.
Grant Gershon led the LA Opera Orchestra in a rousing version of the overture that was dynamic in both its swing jazz era rhythms and the necessary schmaltz for the ballads. The cast rose up on the orchestra pit elevator as it completed the front stage just as the overture drew to its exciting finale with delighted applause.
Director David Lee did an ingenious job of cutting down the book to accommodate the concert staging and whomever hired Roger Bart as the evening’s scene stealing/scene setting Narrator and fill in jack of all trades should be given a medal. In all he played eight roles including a hilarious bit of business when he was the voice on the other side of every phone conversation. He was also rich as Officer Dennis in the jailhouse scene in the second act and led his fellow Irish knights in blue in an absurdly sentimental reading of My Darlin’ Eileen that concluded with the conductor turning around and dancing a jig on the podium and the house coming down. It was that kind of evening.
As the aforementioned Eileen we had the very sprightly Nikki M. James of Book of Mormon fame. She deftly played being both blithely unaware of her natural status as a man-magnet and the fluid transference of her affections with the appearance of anything new in pants. Her rendering of “A Little Bit in Love” capped this in the most charming way possible.
Lucky to have Marc Kudisch on hand as well for the role of magazine editor Robert Baker and although he’s more bass than baritone he brought a stunning legato to “A Quiet Girl” that made it the centerpiece of his performance. He was very nimble as well in ‘What a Waste” and made a perfect leading man foil for all concerned.
Ben Crawford not only had the physique du role for the washed-out college football star Wreck but a handsome baritone that he deployed with innocent charm in “Pass That Football.”
But Wonderful Town was written as a showcase star vehicle (make no mistake!) and Faith Prince fired off Ruth Sherwood’s snappy retorts with an almost militaristic precision. Landing each line and droll quip like an encroaching comic infantry until she had claimed the stage as her own, she brought her own style to “One Hundred Easy Ways” from the first verse and had the audience cupped in her hand by its finale.
She was especially hilarious in the “Conga” scene with the Brazilian naval cadets and all the mad back and forth. There may have been those amongst us who would uncharitably point out that Ms. Prince is nearly two decades older than Rosalind Russell was when she played it on Broadway (and Roz was 20 years too old for the part then). To these kill joys I say firmly,”Who cares?”
Special mention goes to the projection designs of Hana S. Kim that evoked the locales and situations with an apt New Yorker drawing style and brought life both to solely instrumental numbers like “Conquering New York” and the scene where Baker reads Ruth’s writings for the first time.
Sometimes it seems that Comden and Green left every witty lyricist in their wake, even if some of the popular references are aged they still play. Meanwhile Bernstein’s score is magnificent and a joy to hear live and embrace that big band sound with Don Walker’s brilliant orchestrations. It’s vital and raucous and so abundant with melody and well integrated to the story that it more than justifies itself for being presented by an opera company. What a treat!
Photo: Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera