Fred Schepisi

If only this show made us give a damn. Forty minutes were hewed off the running time of "Gone With the Wind" during previews, but first-time theater scribe Margaret Martin's musicalization of one of the world's most famous romantic epics remains a lumbering, stolid affair.

If only this show made us give a damn. Forty minutes were hewed off the running time of “Gone With the Wind” during previews, but first-time theater scribe Margaret Martin’s musicalization of one of the world’s most famous romantic epics remains a lumbering, stolid affair. It’s not for a lack of talent among the cast and A-list design and musical teams, but neither the material nor the production offers persuasive evidence as to why this well-known story needed transposing into a new form. The abiding mystery is: What made a helmer as accomplished as Trevor Nunn believe he could make the project work?

Los Angeles-based health professional and entrepreneur Martin was drawn to “Gone With the Wind” because she felt there were elements of Margaret Mitchell’s novel that could be developed beyond Victor Fleming’s 1939 film version. Nunn is credited as adaptor of the book and lyrics, but Martin alone remains responsible for the music, which seldom rises above the generic despite William David Brohn’s lush orchestrations.

The setting is striking: A circular stage and curved, raked seating create an unusual intimacy between auds (in the orchestra seats, at least) and performance areas. John Napier’s set features an open playing area of dark wooden floorboards, with a narrow runway platform above. The orchestra is partly visible sitting in wooden shacks on either side of the stage, with Confederate flags and old-fashioned signs festooned on the walls.

The overall effect is like being part of a “GWTW” interactive experience — an impression furthered by the production’s reliance on passages of narrative direct address, which slow the evening down and give it an overly literary feel. They are also a strong indication of the creatives’ uncertainty about how best to tell this complex and episodic story.

After a brief passage of narration as the show begins, for example, we are thrown into the middle of the first crisis for Scarlett (Jill Paice): “Ashley to be married?” she cries. She then gives a blast of monologue about her unrequited love for the virtuous Mr. Wilkes (Edward Baker-Duly); meets centerstage with her father (Julian Forsyth) to expound in song about the virtues of the land (it “helps you understand why life’s worth living,” apparently); then grabs hold of the bedpost as Mammy (NaTasha Yvette Williams) tightens up her corset.

The action continues in this vein, refusing to leave out any famous bits, but as a result barreling through episode after episode at high speed. So little differentiation is made among the events to indicate their relative importance that the overall tone is one of relentlessness and, soon, monotony.

The bare stage facilitates the movement of the action but also allows for little distinction between locations: Tara looks and feels the same as Atlanta. There’s a literal-mindedness to the storytelling, with characters frequently walking in circles to indicate going from place to place, and awkward use of mime, as when the O’Haras simulate riding in their carriage by prancing in unison across the stage.

The songs could, in more experienced hands, have been opportunities to bring auds closer to the characters’ emotions, but they are hampered by Martin and Nunn’s cringingly simplistic lyrics (“The war seemed like a game/Our lives will never be the same”).

The first act’s final moment — Scarlett crumples to her knees and the image of a Confederate flag is projected around her as she sings, “The life I know is gone with the wind” — is an unintended masterpiece of high camp. The show only takes off musically in a second-act gospel number sung by the freed slaves. The superb performers raise the roof, but this reliance on black soulfulness to create emotional connection smacks of tokenism.

Petite and powerfully voiced, Paice (recently of Broadway’s “Curtains”) is physically right for the Herculean role of Scarlett but lacks the charisma and emotional variety to fully engage and convince. Though he’s obviously been styled in Clark Gable’s image, Darius Danesh as Rhett Butler has more star power and several decent chances to show off his resonant bass voice. Madeleine Worrell is admirably sympathetic as Melanie but falls victim to several of the production’s dodgy wigs.

Overall, Martin and Nunn seem in thrall to, and eventually overwhelmed by, the scope of Mitchell and Fleming’s originals. As such they offer now politically questionable material (the film romanticizes the Old South and seems sympathetic to slavery) pretty much straight up, swerving away from an obvious opportunity for criticism or updating.

The audience they appear to be cultivating is one that seeks the pleasure and reassurance of recognition: The opening-night crowd initially laughed, then applauded, as Danesh delivered the show’s most famous line (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”), an unsettling indication of their detachment from what Rhett’s rejection of Scarlett actually means. This is “Gone With the Wind” as a greatest hits show — but with no real hits.

Gone With the Wind

New London Theater, London; 1,080 seats; £60 $120 top

Production

An Aldo Scrofani, Colin Ingram, Gary McAvay, Nederlander Presentations, Peter Kane presentation of a musical in two acts, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell, with book and lyrics by Margaret Martin, adapted by Trevor Nunn, and music by Martin. Directed by Nunn. Musical director, David White. Movement director, David Bolger.

Creative

Sets, John Napier; costumes, Andreane Neofitou; lighting, Neil Austin; sound, Paul Groothius; orchestrations, William David Brohn; musical supervision and arrangements, Gareth Valentine; production stage manager, Richard Bullimore. Opened, reviewed April 22, 2008. Running time: 3 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Scarlett O'Hara - Jill Paice Rhett Butler - Darius Danesh Ashley Wilkes - Edward Baker-Duly Melanie Hamilton - Madeleine Worrall Mammy - NaTasha Yvette Williams Prissy - Jina Burrows Gerald O'Hara, Scalawag - Julian Forsyth Ellen O'Hara, Mrs. Elsing - Susannah Fellowes Pork - Ray Shell Dilcey - Jacqueline Boatswain
With: Leon Herbert, Chris Jarman, Susan Tracy, Jeff Shankley, Kathryn Akin, Susan Jane Tanner, Alan Vicary, David Roberts, Alan Winner, Gareth Chart, Tom Sellwood, Emily Bryant, Gemma Sutton, Kirsty Hoiles, Laura Checkley, Lorraine Chappell, Savannah Stevenson, Jenessa Qua, Tober Reilly, Ian Conningham, Derek Hagan, Horace Oliver, Rosalind James.

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