Wonderful Town, The Lowry, Salford


What, oh what, oh what-o? Great songs, but there's no plot-o

Showbiz legend has it that Leonard Bernstein knocked out the music for Wonderful Town (the second of his three New York shows) in only five weeks. With Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the lyrics, he locked himself in a room with daylight shut out and walls painted grey. According to Bernstein's biographer Humphrey Burton, the air was so blue with cigarette smoke that they could barely see each other across the room from piano to typewriter.

There is a lot more colour in the show than blue and grey and this revival (the first for 26 years) slaps on the emulsion with a joyously frenetic broad brush. It's a Manchester/Salford collaboration between the Lowry, the Royal Exchange Theatre and the Hallé, which is having the time of its life in the pit under music director Sir Mark Elder for another week. (A smaller band takes over for the rest of the Salford run and an 11-week tour.)

The plot isn't up to much: sisters Ruth and Eileen quit Ohio for New York and search for work (and love). Nothing much happens in this Big Apple La Bohème: the girls do things and meet people and sing and dance. Most characters, including a string of men who fancy Eileen, have all the depth of ultra-thin plywood.

So it's no dramatic masterpiece; but Braham Murray, directing what seems to be his last Royal Exchange production, and choreographer Andrew Wright are happy to accept it as it is – a flurry of brilliant sketches. Their staging is hyperactive, at times as explosive as the detonations made by subway engineers beneath the Greenwich Village hovel the sisters share. It's very much an ensemble show and the dancers appear to have more limbs and their singers more breath than the rest of us.

As Eileen and Ruth, Lucy van Gasse and Connie Fisher (who, after her soprano days as Maria, has become a comfortable alto), blend perfectly in "Ohio", a number that insinuates itself into your ear at a lazy horse-walk pace and won't come out. Van Gasse renders "A Little Bit in Love" with the right kind of virginal dreaminess, but Fisher gets all the best tunes, whether listing a hundred ways to lose a man or cavorting in a blowzy conga with a flotilla of Brazilian sailors.

The plywood men do their best with some apt cameos; Nic Greenshields (Wreck) and Michael Xavier (Bob Baker) both stand out, the former because he is 7ft tall, the latter because he sings "A Quiet Girl" with such affecting authority.

But the real glory is in the pit. From the first trumpet entry of the overture, you know that the 67 Hallé players (including five saxophonists) are having fun; they have slid easily from their more usual Mahler schmaltz to Bernstein sleaze and play with zip, verve and virtuosic panache.

Elder, with all his experience of opera, is in total command, letting the good tunes breathe and relishing Bernstein's bent rhythms in "Wrong Note Rag" and the Oirishry of "My Darlin' Eileen" (whose capering cops attempt to steal the show). You can also hear things to come: "Conga" and "Swing" anticipate the dance in the gym and the rumble in West Side Story. So grab a ticket while the Hallé is still in residence. And now can I please stop singing "Why, Oh Why, Oh Why-o, Did I Ever Leave Ohio?"?

Continues at The Lowry (0843 208 6005) till Sat, then touring

Theatre choice

Last chance to see two powerful plays. At the Duchess, London, Lee Hall's moving and illuminating The Pitmen Painters, in a National Theatre production,tells the true story of the self-improving Ashington Group of painters. At Southwark Playhouse, Philip Ridley's Shivered is the unflinching story of jihadist execution. Both close on Saturday.

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