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Connie stars in a wonderful show

In the Swing: Connie Fisher leads the residents of Greenwich Village in the jazziest number of the show. Pictures Alastair Muir

Wonderful Town

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

CONNIE Fisher has come of age. As the winner of How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria and subsequent instant stardom, with her prize of the part of Maria in The Sound of Music, she still had a touch of the stage school about her – you could see her acting.

Not any more. Now she walks out on stage as if it is her natural environment. The BBC might have thrust stardom upon her but these days she wears it like a comfortable, favourite old cardigan; once that curtain rises she's at home.

Fisher was told last year she would never sing again because of a throat condition affecting her vocal chords but thankfully her wonderful voice has been saved by an operation, albeit now she sings alto rather than soprano, which means she doesn't head for the high notes any more but there is a new richness to her deeper voice.

She also shows a delightful bent for comedy as Ruth Sherwood in this revival of Leonard Bernstein's 1953 musical with an easy, confident performance that lights up the stage whenever she appears. She is just magnificent.

Connie Fisher, as Ruth, has grown into an all round musical theatre star who makes singing, acting, dancing and comedy look easy

She is not alone though.  It would be hard to fault any of the 20 or so strong cast and even James Burton, the conductor and musical director of the excellent 17 strong orchestra deserves a mention.

Unusually the conductor's head was clearly visible above the pit and Burton was not only joining in with the songs, keeping everyone on track, encouraging his singers and orchestra but he was thoroughly enjoying himself – and why not?

This is a big orchestra for a touring production but pales into insignificance against when this Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre, Hallé Concerts Society and The Lowry production opened in Manchester – then they had the Hallé Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder to give full vent to Bernstein's sweeping score.

Bernstein is a giant of 20th century music, following on from George Gershwin in fusing classical with jazz, traditional and popular music and the score for Wonderful Town is just  . . . well wonderful in its own right with hints of Gershwin and the promise of West Side Story to come; that modern materpiece was to appear four years later.

It is a big score so needs a big orchestra.  

None of the songs are what you could call standards, they are very much part of the structure of the musical, but when it comes to the musical technique and ability needed in their writing – the lyrics are by Betty Comden and Bernstein's lifelong friend and former flat-mate Adolph Green – they are up there with the best.

There is the gentle duet Ohio , between Ruth and her dizzy blonde sister Eileen, played beautifully by Lucy Van Gasse whose marvellous voice betrays her background in opera and as a member of the cross-over group Amici Forever. Singing together the pair are just magic.

There is the remarkably verbally complex One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man sung by Ruth, which is matched by the jazz inspired Swing with Ruth and the Greenwich Villagers and hints of Cab Calloway and scat– a musical experience worth a show all on its own.

Then there is the romantic It's Love which gives the impressive Michael Xavier a chance to show off his fine voice as editor Bob Baker.

Lucy van Gasse, who plays Eileen, brings not only glamour but the voice of an angel to the show

There are lighter moments as well with the giant football player Wreck, played by Nic Greenshields, and his song Pass the Football and one of the most glorious moments of the whole show when Officer Lonnigan, played with suitable officiousness and brogue by Paul Hawkyard, and the Irish contingent of the New York police department, or at least the men in the chorus, along with Eileen of course, give us a their version of  Riverdance in a delicious send up of sentimental Irish ballads in My Darlin' Eileen - worth the price of admission alone.

The story is based on a 1940 play, My Sister Eileen, which in turn was based on a collection of short stories of the same name by Ruth McKenney,  published in 1938, all about growing up with her sister Eileen.

Ruth is the less glamorous one, an aspiring writer who attracts men like . . . well nothing really, while Eileen, an aspiring actress, is a blonde bombshell in the world and words of 1935, when the musical is set, attracting the fellers like iron filings to a magnet. When she is arrested she even has the besotted police acting as her staff.

Living in a basement that was probably condemned by the Pilgrim Fathers and struggling to make a living into their lives come characters such as Chick Clark (Joseph Alessi) a hard nosed newspaperman and a prize nerd of the retail world, Frank Lippencott, (Haydn Oakley) the manager of the local Walgreen's, a sort of American Boots, who are both battling for Eileen's affections, one by devious subterfuge, one by free sandwiches and special offers from his store.

And then there is Bob . . .

Bob, back to 1935-speak again, is a matinee idol, tall, dark and handsome who is in love with Ruth but, as Eileen tells him, he doesn't know it – until the big finale that is.

We have had the jukebox musicals, and the attempts, with varying degrees of success, to turn successful Hollywood films into stage shows, then more recently, we have had a trawl of the musicals of yesteryear for revivals which has given us the likes of Top Hat and Singin' in the Rain.

If this latest trend results in unearthing more little gems like this then it can't be a bad thing – a feel-good musical with a superb score and clever, witty songs.

The sets by Simon Higlett, who also designed the authentic looking costumes,  are imaginative, quick change and take full advantage of the huge, and high, Hippodrome stage to give us a real feel of a big city while the choreography by Andrew Wright is spot on, always interesting, exciting, east on the eye and full of action.

Michael Xavier shows a fine voice as the tall, dark and handsome  Bob Baker

As for the direction? Braham Murray has been artistic director of The Royal Exchange Theatre since he helped to form it in 1976 and he has been instrumental in making it an acclaimed venue, with its 700 seats the largest theatre in the round space in Britain. Murray, who is 69,  has announced he is stepping down in July and this is his last Royal Exchange production; it is a fitting tribute to his 36 years at the helm with quality at every turn. Musical theatre at its very best.

Roger Clarke

Meanwhile on the other side of town . . .

Connie Fisher has come a long way since winning How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria on Andrew Lloyd Webber's BBC TV reality show and starring in The Sound of Music.

In this enjoyable Leonard Bernstein musical about the 1930s, she plays aspiring writer Ruth Sherwood who arrives in New York City from Ohio with her beautiful young sister, Eileen, dreaming of work and romance.

How Connie has matured! She is now a highly competent actress, singer and dancer, totally comfortable in her latest role and forming a splended partnership with the glamorous Lucy Van Gasse (Eileen).

The pair sing and dance superbly in a musical that starts a little slowly but accelerates through the gears in the second act and ends in a blaze of glory.

Ruth and Eileen encounter a string of remarkable characters in the Big Apple, and how the audience love the police station scene when a bunch of cops, charmed by the blonde Eileen, produce a memorable Irish dance, not quite Riverdance but very amusing.

Although Wonderful Town wouldn't rate as a smash hit show, it has bags of charm, a number of catchy songs, including Ohio, A Quiet Girl and It's Love...the latter enabling the handsome Michael Xavier, playing love interest Bob Baker, to demonstrate what a wonderful voice he has.

Braham Murray's direction and Andrew Wright's choreography are outstanding. To 26.05.12

Paul Marston 

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