The spring flurry of West End musicals gets off to a sluggish start with “The Far Pavilions,” a beautifully designed bore that plays like a throwback to a musical era for which today’s auds are unlikely to be nostalgic. Through-sung with any number of syrupy anthems that could be chopped and changed at will, show belongs to the sober-minded, uninspired school of “Les Miz” lite — just one reason its nearly three-hour running time amounts to such heavy going.
On the one hand, theatergoers should be grateful for that rare musical nowadays that isn’t remotely self-parodying or a comment on the genre: The echoes of “Bombay Dreams” are as brief as they are inevitable given the musical’s setting (albeit in North India of 150 years ago, not the Bombay of today). But it’s a shame the resulting doggedness has sacrificed with it any elan, surprise or genuine passion, beyond the manufactured kind.
Helmer Gale Edwards’ production has the feel of a compressed miniseries, which is fair enough given the popular TV saga that M.M. Kaye’s 1978 novel became in 1983. But whereas “Les Miz” survives numerous narrative omissions through sheer musical drive, “Far Pavilions” never generates enough momentum to keep you from guessing the next rhyme and glancing at your watch.
As the 15 million-plus readers of Kaye’s book will know, story tells of the heroic British officer Ash (Hadley Fraser), who believed himself to be Indian when he was, in fact, English — a situation drawn from Kaye’s life. As a boy, he swears eternal friendship with the maharajah’s daughter, Princess Anjuli (Gayatri Iyer), only to rediscover her in adulthood when he returns to India as a lieutenant of the British Raj, now boasting the formidable name of Ashton Pelham-Martyn.
Reviled by his countrymen as “not one of us” because of his Asian past, Ashok/Ashton ends up suspended between two cultures, unsure where to go beyond the obvious musical imperative to follow, yes, “the journey of my heart.”
Not everything is quite so sudsy. In a gallant example of fair play, both the British and Indian camps have their resident malcontents: Harkness (David Burt, in typically snarling form) and the vampy Janoo Rani (“Bombay Dreams” alum Sophiya Haque).
The score has music from Philip Henderson and a book and lyrics by Stephen Clark, and it’s unlikely to keep Andrew Lloyd Webber awake nights worrying about the competition. (The perfunctorily inserted Indian music and lyrics are by Kuljit Bhamra.)
Where “Far Pavilions” generally wants to come across as epic and ennobling, it’s instead mostly cheesy, requiring little from its cast beyond loud, surging voices (Simon Gleeson as Ash’s buddy Walter excels on that front) and gritted teeth (the prize there goes to leading man Fraser, probably a far more likable performer than this show allows).
The musical’s one unarguable asset is its design, which these days seems to have reached a high-water mark in London no matter what the enterprise. (The visually dreary “Woman in White” is the exception.) Lez Brotherston’s set canopies gently into the auditorium, the front cloth of a slowly bloodied image of Queen Victoria giving way to some exceedingly elegant sliding panels that frame the action in alluring, unexpected ways. Peter Mumford’s lighting often generates far more drama than anything being spoken or sung.
Still, what’s easy on the eye can take you only so far, not least when confronted by the poor grammar of Belinda (Dianne Pilkington), Ash’s well-bred English songbird, whose use of “between Ash and I” surely would have met with frowns from the Raj. “The Far Pavilions” wants to take auds to that far-off place known in the musical theater as the land of rapture. Between you and I, the nearest it gets is a field or two of corn.