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BERNSTEIN: Wonderful Town

CD Button Umphress, de Niese; Gunn, Rock; London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Rattle. LSO Live LSO0813

Recordings Wonderful Town 219

SIMON RATTLE LOVES  Wonderful Town fervently. Porgy and Bess aside, he has never recorded another full Broadway musical, but this live concert recording is his third go-round on disc with Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 hit. His enthusiasm is justified. Wonderful Town, Bernstein’s only unalloyed musical comedy, contains his most ebullient and inventive score, full of wit and crackling with Broadway energy. 

Rattle makes a splendid case for the show, bringing gusto and idiomatic authority to every bar. The London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus is an outsize assemblage for this material—it’s like expecting a Cadillac to drive like a Corvette—but the playing is surprisingly nimble, with the horns and winds relishing their jazzy riffs. In “Swing,” the chorus, deployed at a scale appropriate to the Verdi Requiem, doesn’t, well, swing. But the big, big band makes a smashing effect in “Conga,” conjuring what seems like the hugest, most exuberant conga line ever.

Alysha Umphress plays the star role, Ruth—the older and wiser of the two sisters from Ohio who descend on the “wonderful town” of New York—as a sensible, likable young woman. She brings gentle charm to the role, but her work seems small-scale compared to recorded assumptions by monstres sacrés such as Rosalind Russell, the original star, and Donna Murphy, who headed the 2003 Broadway revival, both of whom brought into the studio authority they’d gained onstage. Danielle de Niese, as the ingenuous Eileen, is in lovely voice, and she revels in the bluesiness of “A Little Bit in Love.” But her diction (“a little bit in laav”) is grand for a Midwestern girl. By contrast, Edie Adams, on the original cast recording, and Audra McDonald, on Rattle’s EMI studio recording, are true Broadway babies. 

The men in the cast all put on their best concert manners, much to the detriment of the piece. In the leading-man role of Bob, loved by Eileen and Ruth in turn, Nathan Gunn is horribly starchy: he sings as if he had been handed an album of art songs rather than show tunes. Duncan Rock, as the thickheaded ex-jock Wreck, sounds much more like a gentlemanly graduate of a British conservatory than the product of an American university football program. Ashley Riches, the tour guide in the opening number, “Christopher Street,” has clearly landed in the Village from across the pond.

Rattle’s advocacy makes this Wonderful Town eminently listenable, and anyone using it as an introduction to the show will no doubt be enthralled. But his cast doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. —Fred Cohn



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