Those looking for a theatrical second coming with the resurrection of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s once Rialto-bound musical “Whistle Down the Wind” will be disappointed in this U.S. touring production. With a still-problematic script, lack of star names or a familiar hook beyond the composer’s reputation, it’s going to take more than a miracle for this show to make believers on the road.
Hope for the tuner has been kept somewhat alive since it shut down prior to its Gotham engagement in 1996. A revised production had a decent London run in 1998, and there have been popular U.K. tours since, all reworking the material along the way. But “Whistle” faces a common failing of faith: when something simple and good is contorted into something grand and wrong.
The show is based on Mary Hayley Bell’s 1958 novel and Bryan Forbes’ 1961 British film. Switching the setting from England’s rural Lancashire County to backwoods Louisiana makes some sense given the high degree of naivete and religious obsession that must be accepted for the show’s outlandish premise to work.
A lonely 16-year-old girl named Swallow (Andrea Ross) finds a wounded escaped convict hiding in her family’s barn, here simply identified as the Man (Eric Kunze). When he exclaims, “Jesus Christ!” upon being discovered, the devout lass, along with her two younger siblings (Nadine Jacobson and Austin J. Zambito-Valente), mistake him for the real deal. Clearly, they are desperate to believe in anything that will bring clarity and comfort to their lost lives.
Auds will surely feel the same way. But it’s tough going with rare bits of humor that are either corny or forced, and sentiment as thick and slow as sap.
Oddly enough, the show does little to tap into the rich musical gumbo of its indigenous setting. Instead, there are multiple tunes about prayers being answered (or not) or dreaming of other lives. There’s an insufferable ditty about how much better life would be if children ruled the world, sung by a nation of kids (five of whom travel with the tour and 12 more are picked up locally at each stop).
There are a few lovely songs, too, including the wistful title number. But the synthesized style of pop-rock/pop-opera/power ballad is all too holy here and familiar to the composer’s big-note fans. (Lyricist Jim Steinman provides the pop music cliches, some downright wince-inducing.) Also, the show may beat out “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat” for shameless reprises.
Script by Patricia Knop (best known as co-writer for steamy films such as “9½ Weeks”), Gale Edwards and the composer inflates the once delicate and simple story to include several unnecessary subplots, an unending listing of contemporary names to remind us of the era, a side entertainment or two for little purpose and an incomprehensible snake-handling scene at a revival meeting that bears little relation to the main action.
But what’s more intriguing is the exploration of the sexual awakening of Swallow (that name!). In this way, the story echoes another of the composer’s works, one about another unattainable wounded loner in hiding who holds a strange allure to a virginal lass. But this “Phantom of the Barn” lacks the epic sweep, romantic mystery and consistently lush score of Lloyd Webber’s most successful effort.
Cast is mostly fine. Ross has a lovely, clear soprano and presents her faith honestly, though her simplemindedness gets a bit wearing. Things get more interesting when her faith is tested with a local beau and the attraction to her Jesus becomes more, er, complex. Kunze is rightly charismatic, and God knows he has a Bible Belt of a voice well suited to the character’s big ballads. But he is not given any significant time for quiet reflection or growth. He shares the show’s best moments with Ross in their bittersweet farewell.
Musical is directed by producer Bill Kenwright, best known for his similar double-duty work on “Blood Brothers.” Design by Paul Farnsworth is rustically handsome, but when it’s not bizarre, Henry Metcalfe’s choreography is nonexistent.