Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 22nd May, 2012
This lesser-known Leonard Bernstein musical from 1953 left me wondering why it isn’t staged more often. Teeming with life, funny characters and catchy melodies, it tells the story of Ruth and Eileen, sisters who leave their home town of Columbus, Ohio to seek their fortunes in New York City. They rent a basement flat in Greenwich Village and are immediately mistaken for a pair of hookers. Eventually, they sort out their employment issues (Ruth as a writer; Eileen as an actor) and their romantic entanglements.
What struck me was the tone of the piece. It is neither saccharine nor salacious. It strikes the perfect balance between sweet and saucy and there is not a trace of cynicism in the entire show. It seems to suggest that the American Dream is dead. New York is full of people whose ambitions and aspirations have been thwarted. This theme is encapsulated by the song What A Waste which tells of writers, artists, musicians, actors who have all found the streets of NYC are not paved with golden opportunities. But, being a musical comedy, it doesn’t leave matters standing like that. If you don’t give up on your hopes and aspirations, and keep plugging away, all will come good. After some confusions and false starts, the sisters achieve their goals and all ends happily.
As Ruth, Connie Fisher establishes herself beyond all doubt as a character actor and more than a rent-a-Maria. She gets the snappiest one-liners and demonstrates an aptitude for physical comedy. Her voice seems to be in a lower register and it suits her. Her scene with a bunch of Brazilian sailors obsessed with dancing the Conga was a definite highlight for me. I can easily imagine her as the next Fanny Brice.
She is matched by Lucy van Gasse as man-magnet Eileen. This blonde soprano charms men merely by existing. Suitors fall over themselves to be near her. Before long, the Irish – sorry, Oirish – contingent of the NYPD are fawning over her – the second act begins with a deliciously funny scene in the cop shop, just one of this show’s many moments that had the audience gasping in delight. Michael Xavier is a dashing Bob Baker with his rich voice and handsome face. Nic Greenshields is sweet as gentle giant Wreck, a footballer in training who has to provide his own cheerleading, and Sevan Stephen’s Bohemian landlord, Mr Appopolous, is a masterclass in comic playing.
Simon Higlett’s massive set is stylish and versatile, The vibrant score is melodious with a jazzy twist – you can detect a hint of West Side Story in the arrangement. These songs deserve to be standards. A Little Bit In Love is perfectly charming. Ohio is wistful, and beautifully harmonised by Fisher and van Gasse. Director Braham Murray keeps the pace swift and the surprises keep coming, but credit is due to the producers who had the good sense to revive this overlooked gem and bring it to a new audience.
I hope they now turn their attention to Funny Girl with Ms Fisher in the lead…