Wonderful Times with Wonderful Town

After umpteen serious reviews, penned in serious and somber times, it's high time to lighten up. Hence to Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town we go, and to Sir Simon Rattle's new SACD of the musical, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and a stellar cast that includes Danielle de Niese (Eileen), Alysha Umphress (Ruth), and Nathan Gunn (Bob).

Wonderful Town, whose music Bernstein composed to lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, grabbed five Tony Awards when it opened on Broadway in 1953 with Rosalind Russell as Ruth Sherwood. Whether the reason that none of its songs has achieved lasting popularity (except, perhaps, for "Ohio," which was recorded by Bing Crosby and Doris Day, and was also sung in its original duet form by Carol Burnett and Jane Lynch in the TV show, Glee) has anything to with the fact that Ruth's role was written to be fake sung by Russell, who could not carry a tune, or that its social commentary was so much milder than Candide's (1956) and West Side Story's (1957) that it may have failed to bring out Bernstein's best, is not known.

What is certain, however, is that Wonderful Town is a hell of a lot of fun as it turns one farcical rags-to-(relative)-riches/boy-meets-girl-meets-boy-who-has-met-girl situation after another into a love letter to New York City. What's also clear is that every time Bernstein writes a sweet little romantic tune, which he introduces by oh so lovely strings, he manages to slip in a bit of wicked commentary on the joys and felicities of marriage.

The recording, released to commemorate the Centenary of Bernstein's birth, is actually Rattle's third recording of the musical, and his second with the LSO. Given that both previous recordings—the 1999 studio outing with the LSO and the 2002 live DVD of a concert performance with the Berlin Philharmonic—included the superb Kim Criswell (Ruth), Audra McDonald (Ruth's sister Eileen), and Thomas Hampson (Bob), you may wonder why Rattle chose to record it again.

For your answer, first head to Tidal, and listen to the sonic limitations of the original LSO recording. The sound is rather flat and edgy, and fails to convey the wealth of care Rattle put into his conducting. On the new effort, which was recorded in DSD64 and available to download in both DSD and PCM formats—I auditioned it in 24/192, before the DSD tracks were ready for circulation, but subsequently found the DSD64 version even more satisfying—you can feel Rattle urging the strings to melt at the start of the love songs, and zing in the upbeat numbers.

You'll also discover that the new cast is every bit the equal of the old. De Niese is just plain fabulous, with voice and verve ideal for Eileen. She's a joy. She's also excellent in her brief excursion into high-soprano coloratura, singing passages that foreshadow Candide's unforgettable "Glitter and be Gay." Umphress is a bit challenged at the bottom of her range, but a joy otherwise—her "Ohio" duet with De Niese is warmly voiced and treasurable. Gunn, at age 47, is a more convincing smooth-voiced seducer than Hampson. Gunn's voice may now be a bit challenged at the top of his range, and he may push a bit to achieve his sound, but he still has one of those "It's all right, honey—just take off your clothes, lie back, and I'll do the rest" voices that is ideal for the part.

There are several big vocal surprises. One is Duncan Rock, who sounds ideally youthful and vigorous as Wreck, and another is David Butt Philip, who does Lonigan's Irish tenor number to perfection. But the biggest surprise is that no one, save for Rock, sounds remotely British. Instead, many of them sound as though, if they weren't born in Brooklyn, they've at least spent all of their adult lives in one of the five boroughs.

LSO's 36-page booklet leaves a lot to be desired. In addition to a sketchy plot summary and lack of lyrics—not that you need them, given everyone's clear enunciation—it fails to link each musical number with the characters who perform it (eg, "Ohio"—Ruth and Ellen). Also puzzling is the recorded depiction of the orchestra. Although a brief movie excerpt of the audience participation "Conga!" number at show's end clearly shows the orchestra laid out all across the stage, with some instruments in the last row raised, the sound is sometimes very left/right, as though there were two distinct ensembles with nothing in between.

Finally, there are a few orchestral passages, including the first upbeat section of the overture, where you can sense that Bernstein would have urged the LSO players to swing even more. None of these reservations, however, can prevent Wonderful Town's oodles of fun from reaching over the footlights and into your heart. Highly recommended.

foxhall's picture

"Wonderful Town" is down on the list of my favorite Bernstein works but your review prompted me to give it another listen. It's so obvious Rattle loves this piece.

I'm ready for another "On the Town" recording and assumed an album from the series of concerts by the SFS were going to be released but I've not heard nor read any indication this is happening.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

has released Arias and Barcarolles in digital form. See the forthcoming Record of the Month in the November print issue.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I have just learned that SFS did not record it.