There's plenty to like in Andrew Lloyd Webber's much anticipated "Whistle Down the Wind," including a tuneful score, sturdy performances from the leads, strong visual appeal and a refreshing departure from the musical-as-spectacle genre.

There’s plenty to like in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s much anticipated “Whistle Down the Wind,” including a tuneful score, sturdy performances from the leads, strong visual appeal and a refreshing departure from the musical-as-spectacle genre. Despite book problems, particularly in the second act, Lloyd Webber has assembled a first-rate team, including director Harold Prince, to mount this $10 million Broadway-bound tale.

Set in 1959 (and based in part on the 1961 movie), “Whistle” is about three children who discover a strange man in their backwater Louisiana barn and believe he is Jesus. They work to hide their secret from the town’s adults, setting up an us-vs.-them conflict that is carried out to the bitter end.

In the children-dominated show (preteens make up more than one-third of the cast), the generation gap is deep and wide, accentuated by the portrayal of the adults as one-dimensional misfits and the kids as skeptical but well-grounded cherubs. The contrast between good and evil is driven home relentlessly in song and story, infusing the production with a certain sappiness that will not please everyone.

The feel throughout is decidedly subdued, an effect reinforced on all fronts, including the muted tones of Andrew Jackness’ nonetheless eye-catching sets and Florence Klotz’s costumes, both studies in earth tones. They are effectively showcased by Howell Binkley’s shadow-filled lighting, which emphasizes the musical’s mysterious pursuits.

And of course, there is the Lloyd Webber score, a pleasing collection of numbers that range from his trademark melodies to boisterous country barn dances and rocking hymns. Although there are essentially only half a dozen tunes, he has produced some excellent work. Among the standouts are the title tune, the bawdy “Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts,” the powerful “Safe Haven” and the spunky (although overused) “When Children Rule the World,” all ensemble pieces.

Soloists snare the spotlight in the tender “If Only,” the searing “A Kiss Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” and the passionate “The Nature of the Beast.”

Jim Steinman’s lyrics are consistently on the money. They’re clever and precise, offering the evening’s only attempt at humor and furthering the story by bringing home its central themes. “Wrestle With the Devil” and “Nature of the Beast” are two good examples. Director Prince keeps proceedings moving briskly and excels at easing characters into their numerous numbers.

Jackness has designed a variety of attractive sets and backdrops that depict numerous rural settings, without excess. They include the shabby farmhouse (both interior and exterior), a village street, saloon, church, revival tent, field and moving train. And, of course, there’s the dilapidated barn, the multilevel setting where most of the action is focused.

As for the cast, the producers have found a jewel in Irene Molloy, a recent high school graduate from Warminster, Pa., who was picked for the lead. She is reserved and convincing, the picture of naivete, and produces precisely the right effect in this tale of innocence. At the same time, she is a mature singer whose crystal-clear voice is stunning, especially in her big solo, “If Only.” The rest of the children also are delightful.

The fugitive is played reservedly by Davis Gaines, a “Phantom of the Opera” veteran, whose considerable vocal talents are not displayed until the second act, a weakness in the musical. Timothy Nolen also makes the most of his musical assignments in the role of the troubled father.

Among areas for tinkering during the musical’s pre-Broadway run are a pacing problem in the second act, when events seem to get mired in the barn. The musical would also benefit from insertion of a worthy number for Gaines before intermission. His only opportunity, “Annie Christmas,” is the show’s weakest song. In the second act, a crude revival snake dance simply doesn’t work.

Whistle Down the Wind

National Theatre, Washington, D.C.; 1,169 seats; $70 top

Production

A Really Useful Co. presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Jim Steinman, book by Patricia Knop, based on the novel by Mary Hayley Bell and the 1961 film produced by Richard Attenborough. Director, Harold Prince

Creative

Choreography, Joey McKneely; sets, Andrew Jackness; costumes, Florence Klotz; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Martin Levan; projection design, Wendall K. Harrington; musical supervision, Michael Reed; orchestrations, David Cullen, Lloyd Webber; musical direction, Patrick Vaccariello. Opened Dec. 12, 1996. Reviewed Dec. 11. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
Musical numbers: "Vaults of Heaven," "Spider," "Grownups Kill Me," "Whistle Down the Wind," "The Vow," "Safe Haven," "Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts," "If Only," "Cold," "When Children Rule the World," "Annie Christmas," "No Matter What," "A Kiss Is a Terrible Thing to Waste," "Wrestle With the Devil," "Nature of the Beast."

Cast

Cast: Irene Molloy (Swallow), Abbi Hutcherson (Brat), Cameron Bowen (Poor Baby), Candy Buckley (Aunt Dot), Timothy Nolen (Boone), Allen Fitzpatrick (Minister), Chuck Cooper (Edward), David Lloyd Watson (Earl), Timothy Shew (Rod), Mike Hartman (Sheriff Cookridge), Lacey Hornkohl (Candy), Steve Scott Springer (Amos), Davis Gaines (The Man), Ray Walker (Preacher); Adinah Alexander, Johnetta Alston, Dave Clemmons, Georgia Creighton, Emily Rabon Hall, Melody Kay, Wayne W. Pretlow, John Sawyer, Bob Stillman, Laurie Williamson, Wysandria Woolsey, Sasha Allen, Alex Bowen, Graham Bowen, Gina DeStefano, Rori Godsey, Scott Irby-Ranniar, Clarence Leggett, Julia McIlvaine

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