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Davis Shakespeare Revives Rarely Staged Leonard Bernstein Musical

Yarcenia Garcia

Gia Battista, Ian Hopps, Kevin Caravalho and Tim Gaffaney in Wonderful Town.

Yarcenia Garcia

Everybody knows “West Side Story,” which Leonard Bernstein scored in 1957. But few people are familiar with “Wonderful Town,” a less famous musical comedy Bernstein scored in 1953.

The Davis Shakespeare Festival is staging that lesser-known work, the first time it’s been done in Sacramento in four decades.

“Wonderful Town” is an amiable story about two sisters who leave small town Ohio for New York City, determined to forge artistic careers in Greenwich Village. Bernstein composed the score for this show in just four weeks – and he wasn’t really swinging for the fences. But “Wonderful Town” nonetheless contains several songs that would probably be well-known today if they’d been in a higher profile show.

The two sisters sing a lovely duet early on when they reach the Big Apple and start feeling homesick. The song has a loping beat that suggests someone riding a horse Out West – y’know, the MIDDLE West, which might as well be the frontier if you’re a Manhattan sophisticate.

The two sisters harmonize as they sing: “Oh why, oh why-o did I leave Ohio?”

The actresses playing the sisters in this production are real life siblings Gia and Gabby Batista. So it’s kinda special when they sing together.

And 1953 was also just before Rock and Roll arrived with a splash. So Bernstein turned to cool sultry jazz, in a song called “Swing,” with lyrics like “Swing. Dig the rhythm. Swing. Dig the message.”

Then there’s a peppy Latin number when one sister is sent to the port by a newspaper to interview six cute sailors from Brazil. But the sailor boys have only one thing on their minds – dancing with the pretty girl in front of them.

Davis Shakespeare, an emerging festival just coming into its own, is staging “Wonderful Town” on a modest budget in a 300-seat theater, using young conservatory-trained talent, mostly from the Bay Area.

This show is not as polished or elaborate as the big budget Music Circus productions in the 2,200-seat Wells Fargo Pavilion. But Davis Shakespeare’s light-hearted production is nonetheless charming, and genuinely fun to watch. And it offers a rare opportunity to hear an undervalued Bernstein score.

The Davis Shakespeare Festival production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Wonderful Town” continues through Aug. 6 at the Veterans Memorial Theatre in Davis.

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Jeff Hudson

Contributing Arts Reporter and Theatre Critic

Jeff Hudson has been contributing arts-related stories to Capital Public Radio since 1995, with an emphasis on theater and classical music. He attends over 100 performances annually, ranging from modern musicals to medieval masses.   Read Full Bio 

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