Saturday, 19 May 2012

Wonderful Town, or it pains me to say this, but...

I wanted to love this performance, I really did. In fairness everybody on stage and in the pit are giving it their all, and that includes the most problematic performer of whom I shall have cause to say more later. But beyond that particular issue there is something broader that isn't quite right with this show, and when I observed that both choreographer and designer were also involved with last year's Singin in the Rain, the nature of the broader issue became clearer. It isn't that anything in design or choreography is mistaken but somehow that quality of naturalness, of humanity – that thing that makes you feel this story is being lived now before your eyes just wasn't quite there. Now it is true that this performance had a very tough benchmark to live up to as the last time I saw this show was in the marvellous Broadway revival with the incomparable Donna Murphy as Ruth and Gregg Edelman as Bob. However, I think this performance could have come a lot closer, even with the caveat already mentioned, but for the other elephant in the room.

For the sad, harsh truth is that Connie Fisher is not good enough to play Ruth Sherwood. This is not for lack of effort on her part. She tries to project the necessary personality which done right should make the character the electric centre of every scene she's in, but she just doesn't have it. And there is a more serious problem – the state of Fisher's voice. Despite miking it simply isn't strong enough for this kind of lead performance, and this is sadly exposed every time she's in a duet situation – Lucy van Gasse (Eileen), Michael Xavier (Bob) and Tiffany Graves (Helen) all sing her off the stage. If Fisher were able to compensate for vocal weakness with stage presence it might have been okay but as already noted that presence just isn't sufficiently there.

The issues with Fisher forces me to consider again the merits of the BBC's various talent contests for West End roles. Fisher of course famously won the contest to become Lloyd Webber's Maria and, equally famously, then suffered vocal problems which have turned her from soprano to contralto. I watched the show (and the subsequent searches for Nancy and Dorothy) and at the time disagreed with a relative who works in the business who disapproved of this whole method of finding a leading man/lady. But after this I begin to wonder if my relative was right. I can only assume it was thought by the producers that Fisher would sell tickets because the public would know her from the past (judging by ticket availabilty for today's shows in Nottingham there is some doubt on this point). Either way though the result is to cast someone who is not appropriate for the part. Moreover I really question whether Fisher can undertake further lead roles – the voice just does not seem to me on this showing to be strong enough.

Among the rest of the cast there are some strong performances. Michael Xavier is in excellent voice as Bob but more chemistry is needed between him and Fisher. Lucy van Gasse is suitably flirtatious as Eileen. There are nice supporting turns from Tiffany Graves as Helen, Nic Greenshields as the Wreck and Sevan Stephan as Appopulous. The support from the ensemble is strong.

In the pit the orchestra play superbly and really let rip where they can, most notably in the Overture and the Village Vortex Ballet. I'd expected from comments beforehand to feel the tempi were too slow, but generally it seemed to me James Burton got it right. Rather for me it was a problem of that living element I mentioned at the beginning. Little things just don't quite come off – the Conga Finale is not crazy enough (and I'm sure some of Comden and Green's lyrics have been messed around with – there is definitely a reference to Charles G. Dawes on my recording), and the direction of What a Waste also does not work – in particular sending Fisher off-stage just so she can reappear in a different costume at the end of the number is bizarre – the whole point of the number being to teach her a lesson. One other area that requires comment is the accents which struck me as odd in places, again I'm afraid particularly with respect to Fisher who sounded to me like she was hailing from somewhere in the South rather than Ohio. The rendering in Ohio of “better go home” as “bitter go home” was a notably bizarre effect.

There are enjoyable things about this show. It gave me a real thrill to hear the Overture and the Village Vortex Ballet played live again, and you cannot fault the commitment of cast and pit but ultimately that crucial central spark is missing. There's still no doubt in my mind that this show deserves to be better known and more frequently revived than it is but to revive it with real success you need someone with true star quality to play Ruth which Fisher, it saddens me to say, just has not got.

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