It's Hard to Imagine a More Thrilling Performance
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 07/20/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"'Wonderful Town' is not Leonard Bernstein's best score, but you wouldn't know it from this exuberant performance in the unlikeliest of places: New Year's Eve 2002 at the Philharmonie, the home of the Berlin Philharmonic. Led by their new chief conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, and featuring an all-star cast of American singers, this semi-staged BPO concert version of the Bernstein's 1953 Broadway hit is amazingly right in all its particulars. From the jazzy overture to the encore of 'Conga!' in which Rattle entreats (in German) the gala audience to get up and form a conga line, the joy and esprit of this concert has to be seen and heard to be believed. The singers are as good as they get. Kim Criswell, one of the best Broadway singers of recent times, plays the aspiring writer, Ruth Sherwood, with brass, spunk, and shaky cynicism; her 'One Hundred Ways to Lose a Man' had the audience roaring. Ruth's sister Eileen is performed by the delectable Audra McDonald, winner of three Tonys before the age of 28. (Interestingly, it's a homecoming of sorts for McDonald; she was born in Berlin in 1970.) A graduate of Juilliard, McDonald has one of the most gorgeous voices around these days, and personality to spare. Her 'A Little Bit in Love' is scrumptious. One number that brings a lump to the throat is the sisters' duet, 'Ohio' ('Why, Oh Why, Oh Why Oh, Why Did I Ever Leave Ohio?').
Singing multiple roles in his marvelous baritone, the handsome Brent Barrett sings 'Christopher Street' and rocks the house with 'Pass the Football.' I was frankly amazed that the German audience seemed to have no trouble understanding some of the 1950s American slang in that and other songs. They clearly were having the time of the lives. Thomas Hampson, as Baker, sings 'A Quiet Girl' and the duet with Eileen 'It's Love' in his world-class baritone and flawless diction. Secondary roles, including some taken by the chorus, European Voices (in American accents), were ably done.
Simon Rattle, known for his love for classic American light music, is completely in his element in this complex Bernstein score with its rapid changes of meter, tricky accents, and jazzy harmonies. More than that, he was obviously enjoying every moment. But even more amazing was the patent enjoyment of the ordinarily staid Berlin Philharmonic musicians. It is often said that European musicians just don't 'get' American popular music, but that clearly is not the case here. One is unlikely to ever hear a more beautiful instrumental performance of this score. In 'Swing!' the licks by the BPO brass were worthy of any of the famous Big Bands of the thirties and forties. The Raschèr Saxophone Quartet were in the pit to add to the Big Band sound. British keyboardist Wayne Marshall (best known as an organist, but a frequent collaborator with Rattle, including the jazz piano role in Rattle's recording of 'Porgy and Bess') played the dazzling orchestral piano part.
I cannot recommend this DVD highly enough.
1 DVD; Sound: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, or DTS 5.1. Subtitles: English, German, French. Running time: 76 minutes
Excellent Concert Presentation Of Wonderful Town
C. O. DeRiemer | San Antonio, Texas, USA | 09/25/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This concert version of the Betty Comden/Adolph Green/Leonard Bernstein 1953 Broadway hit demonstrates just how much skilled, experienced professionals can accomplish. The three turned out the score in four weeks. The production was a vehicle for Rosalind Russell's star return to Broadway after years in Hollywood...and Russell couldn't sing. They fashioned a series of raucous, tender, funny, romantic songs, with Russell's efforts tailored to her comedy skills and limited vocal ability. The show was a smash, and so is this concert performance conducted by Simon Rattle.
Kim Criswell sings Ruth Sherwood and Audra McDonald sings her younger sister, Eileen. The book is based on Ruth McKenney's best seller My Sister Eileen. Ruth wants to be a writer, Eileen wants to be an actress. They leave their home in Ohio and head for New York, where they wind up in a crummy Greenwich Village apartment. They meet an assortment of oddballs, have a series of adventures, and Ruth finds love and success. It's a funny, sweet story. Comden and Green fashioned lyrics that are satirical but good-natured. Bernstein rose to the task with songs that could be funny and tender, but also with set pieces designed to show off Russell. These pieces -- Conga!, One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man, Swing! -- are complicated, often raucous and were deliberately designed to be show-stoppers for Russell. They're still show-stoppers with Criswell.
Comden and Green had a way of making fun of things that seldom left wounds. Listen to the lyrics of Pass That Football, What a Waste or Conga! and you'll most likely laugh at the wry recognition of your own pretensions. While I admire most of Bernstein's Broadway shows, my admiration is more intellectual than emotional. Still, you have only to listen to the romantic theme given to Terry and Edie in On the Waterfront or to Lonely Town or Some Other Time from On the Town to realize he was capable of writing music of great longing and sweetness. He hasn't hit that mark here, but he's done some clever, highly polished work, and he's also come up with a couple of poignant-happy melodies that are outstanding: It's Love and A Quiet Girl.
Kim Criswell is an experienced Broadway musical actress who can belt out a song with the best of them. Audra McDonald is just as good as the quieter sister, and her voice is magnificent. They make a great duo. Thomas Hampson plays Robert Baker, who eventually realizes he loves Ruth, not Eileen.
This was the 2002 Berlin Philharmonic's New Year's Eve concert and was filmed in the concert hall as a minimally staged production. In this case, it's the songs, the music and the singers that count, and they all come off magnificently. The DVD picture and audio presentation is excellent. Highly recommended if you like Comden and Green and Bernstein's Broadway shows.
Incidentally, Eileen McKenney married a young author, Nathanael West. He wrote Miss Lonleyhearts and The Day of the Locust. Both books are worth reading. They were young, talented, and were killed in a car crash on their way to Scott Fitzgerald's funeral. Her life made part of a warm, funny book, a play, a movie and then a musical, but didn't have a happy ending."
Wonderful Town: Wonderful Concert!
J. B TOMAI | Las Vegas, Nevada United States | 08/18/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I was immediately taken with the overture. Considering it wasn't one I was familiar with, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. The enthusiasm of the musicians was amazing under the baton of Simon Rattle. The performers are flawless, as expected but the overall quality of the DVD is stunning in its clarity and most especially the sound. One of the absolute best quality DVD concerts I've ever encountered. This DVD is a definite winner!"