The first fully formed Canadian production of Wonderful Town is a frustrating affair beginning with the oddly vanilla-flavoured Overture (the exception being the Irish jig that sparkled) to “The Wrong Note Rag” where the mission-critical syncopation failed to settle and the “wrong” notes lacked convincing weight—more oops than gotcha. But the latter problem is not confined to the Shaw Festival, the 2003 Broadway CD can’t find the raggedy magic either (cross-reference below).
The best news is Lisa Horner’s top-notch performance as Ruth Sherwood. Whether wisecracking through the zany dialogue (identifying a stolen typewriter by its missing “w” due to typing a paper on Walt Whitman is one of many literary gags that fly by; “Stokowski’s hands” many well have come from composer Leonard Bernstein during the initial rehearsals in 1952), delivering the delicious lyrics (rhyming “Ohio” with “Why-o” an amazing example of the exceptional creativity of lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green) or acting out her character’s “clean fine” short stories, Horner fires on all cylinders; her darkly persuasive mezzo voice has moments of Ethel Merman colour that speaks well for the future (can Annie Get Your Gun be worked into the mandate?).
Also deserving a happy dance is Jay Turvey. The talented actor takes the role of Robert Baker (a literary editor who provides aspiring writer Ruth with advice and support on the way to her first assignment only to fall for her charms as well) with consummate skill and a marvellous voice (“A Quiet Girl” is a knockout). With so much going his way, the addition of some slightly more nuanced phrasing and a wider dynamic range (so difficult to truly focus on with the dreaded microphones preventing a natural sound) could soon bring his contributions into the showstopping category.
Best of the brogue most certainly goes to William Vickers. Officer John Lonigan couldn’t have a better advocate thanks to the affable performer’s superb comic sense and suitcase of sound effects. Happily, he’s surrounded by enough in-tune officers to make “My Darlin’ Eileen” a special treat.
Chilina Kennedy plays Eileen Sherwood, zipping through the madcap role with panache. The famous “Ohio” duet is nicely balanced but neither the singers nor the orchestra really pull off the “big” triplets, weakening the rhythmic effect considerably.
Another lost musical opportunity is the stodgy tempo chosen for the Act I finale, “Conga,” resulting in an early rehearsal feel rather than a rollicking number to send the patrons out for the break with a smile on their faces and perhaps the temptation to continue the dance in the foyer. Still, setting up the harbour scene with the on-stage arrival of what could have been a laker from the Welland Canal drew grins all around. Indeed, from the opening scrim and fantastic transition from the street to the basement apartment, William Schmuck’s sets are a delight with every change.
“Swing”—the prequel to West Side Story dance number—comes off a tad stiff, but not for want of trying. Jane Johanson’s choreography is more pleasant than pulsating; Paul Sportelli and his talented musicians, again, seem a metronome notch short of liftoff. No worries, there was still the big finish, “Ballet at the Village Vortex” (where the sisters strut their stuff and everybody grooves happily ever after) to come. Here, the disappointment is director Roger Hodgman’s decision to have a trio of actors on stage, pretending to play the infectious charts (even as Lorne Kennedy tries to do the same with Speedy Valenti’s licorice stick), but fake so slowly as to be more of a distraction than an engaging conceit (what fun it would be to bring the leads up from the pit and see them work their magic live).
As time goes on, Wonderful Town will likely loosen up and find its pulse—here’s to a quick-step transition. JWR