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The Sherwoods’ Forest: Get Ready To Conga!

Ed Rampell: LA Opera’s breezy production of Wonderful Town, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is a highly enjoyable, ideal holiday season treat for the eyes and ears.
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WONDERFUL TOWN Review

LA Opera’s breezy production of Wonderful Town, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is a highly enjoyable, ideal holiday season treat for the eyes and ears. Having said (or rather, written) that, let me tell you what this version of Wonderful Town, which was performed three times Dec. 2-4 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, isn’t: It is NOT an opera nor is it a full-fledged stage revival of the Broadway musical.

Rather, it is an adaptation by the current show’s director, David Lee, of the book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov’s for concert performance. Conducted by a rather ebullient Grant Gershon, instead of playing in the pits the LA Opera Orchestra performs onstage, with most of the dramatis personae singing and dancing in front of the musicians, bolstered by about 16 LA Opera Chorus members and 10 hoofers. Above them quasi-Impressionistic artwork depicting Manhattan is projected on a large screen (Hana S. Kim is the projection designer) as the story unfolds.

The plot is the quintessential New York and show biz saga: Two Ohio sisters come from small town USA to make it in the big city. Ruth Sherwood (Faith Prince, who nabbed Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for playing Miss Adelaide in 1992’s Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls) dreams of becoming a writer. Eileen Sherwood (the bewitching Nikki M. James who was so great on last summer’s Braindead series) aspires to become a performer. As they strive to attain their artsy goals, the sisters encounter colorful New Yorkers amidst the trials, tribulations and triumphs of life in Manhattan during the 1930s.

It’s appropriate that Ms. Prince previously co-starred in Guys and Dolls because Wonderful Town has a similar Runyonesque vibe. Except, instead of being set near Times Square and Midtown amidst gamblers and missionaries, Wonderful Town is centered around Greenwich Village and the artistes and bohemians gathered there. This “Native” New Yawker resonated to the references to his old haunts, at Bleecker Street, Christopher Street, Washington Square Park, et al.

In place of Damon Runyon, Wonderful Town’s tale is derived from magazine pieces published in The New Yorker by Ruth McKenney, who wrote about her misadventures in Manhattan, where these out-of-towners had alighted in search of fame and fortune in the arts. Brian Kellow’s insightful article in Performances Magazine traces the work’s pedigree, including the 1938 publication of a collection of McKenney’s stories as a book, which Fields and Chodorov adapted for the Broadway stage with 1940’s My Sister Eileen, starring Shirley Booth as Ruth, who was then played by Rosalind Russell in a 1942 screen version, earning her an Oscar nom.

To make a long story short, Bernstein, Comden and Green created the score and lyrics for the musical iteration, which opened a few miles north of Washington Square on the Great White Way at the Winter Garden in 1953. Among the classics Comden and Green wrote lyrics for is the beloved 1952 movie Singin’ in the Rain, as well the 1944 Broadway musical On the Town, with music by Bernstein (some of his compositions are in the 1949 motion picture version).

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Like the similarly entitled Wonderful Town, On the Town is - like 1957’s West Side Story - set in New York City, where Bernstein (from Massachusetts, not the Buckeye State) moved circa 1940, when he was about 22. Although 1956’s operetta Candide, based on Voltaire’s far-flung novel with a libretto by Lillian Hellman, takes place in Europe and Latin America, Wonderful Town’s sisters Ruth and Eileen are not unlike Candide - unsophisticated country folk who cross paths with city slickers in a series of episodic, picaresque misadventures.

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Alas, LA Opera’s Wonderful Town quickly loses what Billy Joel rhapsodized as “a New York state of mind.” The illustrations projected above the performers are pleasant enough but don’t convey a Manhattan or Brooklyn sensibility, nor does the story per se. After a while, as the Ohioans shed what Frank Sinatra called their “vagabond shoes,” Ruth and Eileen could be trying to become “king of the hill, top of the heap” anywhere, as opposed to in “New York, New York”, the “city that doesn't sleep.”

Despite some timely references, this period piece’s era never comes fully alive. The cast may briefly sing and, in bits of dialogue, talk about Pres. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, such as the NRA (National Recovery Administration) and TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority),or figures of the time such as baseball pitcher Dizzie Dean, but the show emanates little about the Great Depression. It was hard times in New York during the 1930s, and there is absolutely no sense of the decade’s hardships, nor of the radical hotbed the city was then (Union Square, that leftwing stronghold, is walking distance of Greenwich Village where, BTW, John Reed had lived prior to the Russian Revolution). This production’s minimalist costuming and sets (or lack of) also don’t help to establish a Manhattan mood - for then or now, come to think of it.

On the other hand, Wonderful Town’s glorious music, singing, dancing and acting are quite another story and what makes this musical well worthwhile. Nikki M. James is a vivacious beauty who has great stage presence, as she does onscreen. In a bravura number the virtuoso, athletic dancing reminds one of those cinematic spectacles in Busby Berkeley movie musicals. This is a whirligig, eye-popping showstopper - Kudos to choreographer Peggy Hickey. Talk about Dizzie Dean!

When Ruth tries to interview sailors of Brazil’s fleet who are docked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, their hilarious, joyous “Conga!” brings the house down. Talk about a “Good Neighbors Policy!” Tony Award winner Roger Bart (Young Frankenstein) dazzles the audience in multiple roles, ranging from the fast-talking newspaperman Chick Clark to Speedy Valenti, the beret-wearing hipster who runs the Village Vortex (a jazz club inspired by the Village Vanguard). Ms. Prince also has fun when Ruth tries to sing a song using “hep” words in the “Swing” number.

Beneath the surface, her droll “One Hundred Easy Ways” is actually rather poignant, as Ruth, a sort of feminist, recounts how outsmarting would-be beaus is a sure way to lose a man. Eileen’s “A Little Bit in Love” is a sweet song, as is “Ohio”, wherein confronted by what Martin Scorsese called Manhattan’s “Mean Streets”, the wistful sisters reminisce about their home state and simpler, easier times, wondering:

“Why oh why oh why oh,
Why did I ever leave Ohio?
Why did I wander
To find what lies yonder,
When life was so cozy at home?”

Ultimately, as Lenny, Comden and Green all attained the heights of success, theirs is a lighthearted, jubilant vision of a New York where hard work, perseverance and talent will, in the end, prevail, along with true love. This Wonderful Town is good fun - and simply wonderful to experience at this time of year.

Ed Rampell

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio will be performed Jan. 28-Feb. 19, 2017 at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012..

Ed Rampell