Not too many musicals boast a cast list that includes live snakes. But there they were, writhing their way through the original London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical transplanting of a sweet Yorkshire tale to the thrashing passions of the God-fearin’ American Deep South. Herpetologists anxious for a little repeat reptile action should avoid this revival of “Whistle Down the Wind,” however; this time the snakes are fakes. And they’re not alone.
Producer Bill Kenwright took one look at Gale Edwards’ overblown 1998 London production and, deciding there was a better show struggling to get out from under, personally redirected the show for two U.K. tours. A gap in the schedule of the flagship theater in Lloyd Webber’s portfolio caused by the early demise of “The Woman in White” and the fall arrival of “Monty Python’s Spamalot” meant he could bring it to town.
Taking advantage of the beloved showbiz mantra “let’s put the show on right here in the barn,” Paul Farnsworth does just that. A field rears up in artful perspective across the back wall, creating a yearning, open horizon. Aside from a few exteriors and trucked-on simple interiors, however, most of the action occurs in the barn where 15-year-old heroine Swallow (Claire Marlowe) and her little sister and brother discover a wounded man. Shocked by the sudden awakening, he yelps “Jesus Christ!” and devout Swallow puts two and two together and gets five. We know he’s an escaped convict, she doesn’t.
The barn exterior doubles as the church for the opening scene, which is where the show’s troubles begin. Led by a preacher putting the belt back into bible, the community gather together in sung prayer. The number is there to define the religious spirit central to the piece, but the anthemic song builds so absurdly fast from nowhere to overcranked emotion — a hint of things to come — that it feels like a hymn crossed with an overwritten “I Want” song. Sad to say, all they shamelessly want is applause.
It’s the first indication of the production’s mistaken belief that emoting is the same as acting. More, in this case, is decidedly less. As “the Man,” the convict “tamed” by the innocent love of a young girl, Tim Rogers can deliver a sweaty-vested, angst-ridden howl with the best of them, but it’s extremely hard to care when someone is yelling at you, no matter that it’s in tune.
Only a fool would deny Lloyd Webber’s gift for melody. The title song is the show’s most wistful and successful number; elsewhere, the rest of the score lack a distinctive voice. From rock retreads with structural similarities to lyricist Jim Steinman’s own “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” to the endlessly repeated title line of the jingle-style “Children of the World Unite,” this is the triumph of pastiche over passion.
Speaking of passion, Kenwright’s mission seems to have been to make the show not only leaner but cleaner. Cleaving to the appealing naivety of the original novel, he has jettisoned the sexual tension that queasily dominated Edwards’ production. That solves the problem of the previous seismic shifts in tone, but leaves a gaping hole that even plucky Marlowe’s sweet but bland Swallow cannot fill.
The uneven result leaves one thinking Kenwright has made the mistake of re-directing the show he wished Lloyd Webber had written, rather than the one he did. To make matters worse, helmer clearly has doubts about the ability of the material to generate emotion on its own. Why else does he push lighting designer Nick Richings to go for broke at all times? No sunset is ever warm, it’s puce. And speaking of Deep Purple, the rock-concert-style split-beam shafts of light cannot disguise the lack of motivation behind people being dully positioned in the middle of the stage.
Indeed, why care about most of the characters, since the perfunctory writing precludes any real engagement? The book seems satisfied with merely indicating stereotypes — the black girl who wants to get out of a racist town, the tearaway who want to be like “Rebel Without a Cause” — and handing them a number.
The number those two characters are handed sounds like a Meatloaf outtake: “Tire-tracks and Broken Hearts.” They’re also handed a motorbike, a wide-open stage and, on this evidence, the least imaginative choreographer in London. Henry Metcalfe assembles a few hand-me-down moves, angled body thrusts and mean looks as the two aspire to flee Louisiana. They may be dreaming of another land but, sneering and singing away, they’re actually in the land of missed opportunity.
Which brings us back to the snakes. Correction, pieces of rubber that the unlucky cast members bear aloft in what’s supposed to be the climactic number, where the souls of townsfolk are tested. What was Metcalfe doing the day that number was rehearsed? For all the thrashing guitars and bass-heavy sound design, it’s impossible to find the snakes frightening or, indeed, to glean much sense of what’s happening emotionally.
To top it all, the curtain call ends with the cast leaving the stage but for the youngest boy, who stays waving madly to the audience. The actor playing his father comes back on, gathers him up and carries the boy off, still grinning and waving. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the show with no shame.