West End Review: ‘From Here to Eternity’

From Here to Eternity musical review

New musical from lyricist-producer Tim Rice is too thin to generate interest, much less any beach-rolling heat

Impressively stylized choreography and punchy lighting cues ignite “G Company Blues,” the opening number of lyricist-producer Tim Rice’s new tuner “From Here To Eternity.” Surprising though its expressive dynamism is, the sad news is that it’s downhill from there. Helmer Tamara Harvey sends in the troops of a notably well-synced creative team, but although their vigorous attacks create impact, they cannot sustain tension when book, music and lyrics are so thin. “Maybe,” announces one of Rice’s lyrics, “we’ve come to the conclusion we’re nothing special.” Indeed. 

The show is adapted not from the celebrated movie but James Jones’ original warts-‘n’-all novel about the brutality of military life in the run-up to Pearl Harbor. The latest edition weighs in at 864 pages — that’s a lot of plot, which most tuners tend to do badly.

In his West End debut, bookwriter Bill Oakes never solves the problem of how best to drive the stage story, not to mention: Which story? There’s principled Private Prewitt (Robert Lonsdale) suffering beneath the leadership of corrupt Captain Holmes (Martin Marquez). Then there’s Prewitt’s relationship with love interest Lorene (Siubhan Harrison). And there’s First Sergeant Warden (Darius Campbell) and his love interest Karen (Rebecca Thornhill), who’s married to Holmes. All that, plus the comic ministrations of wise-guy Private Maggio.

With all those lead characters plus their plots to juggle, as well as the creaky reintroduction of a sub-plot about closeted gay sexuality (cut by the publishers from the original novel), the (in)action keeps flitting between stories rather than building a head of steam. Since everyone gets predictable, over-emoted “I feel” songs, there’s perilously little time to create actual drama. In one neatly staged scene, everyone is writing (and singing) their postcards home. Alas, you need little more than a postcard on which to write the dialogue for most scenes.

The result is that characters seem to speak treatments rather than a finished script. Positions are so baldly stated and desires so easily voiced that it’s hard to care. Matters aren’t helped by one-dimensional characters. Ryan Sampson’s Maggio is a tiny dynamo and Thornhill is defiant as embittered Karen, but she has to do twice her work because Campbell’s wooden Warden generates a swaggering, resonant bass-baritone but absolutely no heat. In both the book and the film, Prewitt is affectingly driven to the limits of his sanity. Handsome but underpowered Robert Lonsdale just looks like he’s been shouted at to do a few more push-ups.

Designer Soutra Gilmour works wonders with series of drops — blinds for an office, slash curtains for the prostitutes’ club — swiftly redefining the space framed by vistas of crumbling proscenium arches. Bruno Poet’s lighting creates contrasting atmospheres and continually sets up and punctuates individual moments, while Kate Waters’ highly convincing fight scenes and Harvey’s fully theatrical handling of the Japanese bombing are as effective as they are bold. Yet as the lengthy second half wears on, it’s ever clearer that the team is working overtime to make something theatrical out of writing that is undramatic.

That certainly includes the music, for which David White’s evocative orchestrations and hugely satisfying vocal arrangements, replete with rich harmonic clusters, cover anodyne songwriting. Debuting West End composer Stuart Brayson can knock out generic blues numbers, a swing number, a stentorian march and interchangeable plaintive ballads. Yet even though Prewitt repeatedly sings of the need to find “my own voice,” that’s exactly what Brayson’s music lacks.

Furthermore, you don’t have to be Sondheim to find yourself wishing that, instead of standing still, a number might move either audiences or a character in some direction, to illustrate a change of heart, a developing idea or even simply to raise the temperature. Almost all merely underline the obvious, aided by generalized lyrics, one of which ends (with several reprises) by rhyming knowing “who you are” with the tired “might as well reach for a star.”

Quoting another of the lyrics, a stronger producer might have said “It’s all too easy” and urged the lyricist to try harder, but in this case the producer and lyricist are one and the same. Rice (“The Lion King,” “Evita,” “Jesus Christ Superstar”) has deep enough pockets for this costly show — with a band of 15 and a cast of 29, all of whom would benefit from a crisper sound design. With no star performers and only a 60-year-old title and his name to sell the musical, he’s going to need them. When was the last time anyone booked a ticket on the basis of a lyricist?

West End Review: 'From Here to Eternity'

Shaftesbury Theater, London; 1,306 seats; £67.50, $109 top. Opened Oct 23, 2013 reviewed Oct. 22. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Production

A Tim Rice and Lee Menzies for Eternity Productions Limited presentation of a musical in two acts, book by Bill Oakes based on the novel by James Jones, music by Stuart Brayson, lyrics by Rice. 

Creative

Directed by Tamara Harvey. Choreography, Javier de Frutos. Musical direction, supervision and orchestration, David White. Sets and costumes, Soutra Gilmour; lighting, Bruno Poet; sound, Mick Potter, projections, Jon Driscoll; production stage manager, John Caswell.

Cast

Robert Lonsdale, Darius Campbell, Rebecca Thornhill, Siubhan Harrison, Ryan Sampson, Martin Marquez, Christine Allado, Keisha Amponsa Banson, Marc Antolin, Julie Armstrong, James Ballanger, John Brannoch, Abigail Climer, Brian Doherty, Shimi Goodman, Kirby Hughes, Dean John-Wilson, Joshua Lacey, Carolyn Maitland, Yivtach Mizrahi, Nuno Queimado, Lucinda Shaw, Warren Sollars, David Stoller, Rebecca Sutherland, Laurer Tyrer, Lauren Vanham, Adam Vaughan, Stephen Webb.

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  1. joseph f says:

    saw the play via satellite telecast in my local movie theater. on a scale of 0 to 10 i would give it a 5.
    very dark and depressing. after the first number it was downhill from there. lots of plots that never connected into an overall story. as far as the music and lyrics, nothing to hum home about. Sorry,

  2. Deborah Oates says:

    Couldn’t disagree more with this review. I saw it last night and can’t wait to watch it again. Beautifully staged, hugely talented cast, memorable songs and a moving story that will prey on your mind. Ignore the review – go and judge for yourselves!

  3. suissemusical says:

    I just read a lot of reviews today – more less they say all the same .. thanks, that I was no so wrong with my impressions about the “new epic musical”….
    Honestly I was so excited to see this “new epic musical” on west end for the first time. I really couldn’t wait for the preview nights…i bouth two tickets directly to watch the show at the preview on wednesday and friday…..
    Well… then the final day was there and I moved forward to my seat…full of exiting like a small kid before Christmas. The opening number with the feeling of tropical islands, the sound of waves and wind….wow…that can be a nice evening… and then? That’s it…. Most time from now on you see the actors moving the beds on the stage and from the stage. Well, some other accessories as well are moved. …on the stage, from the stage…and again, and again….. There are no big changes on the stage so far. Just moving the items from the left to the right…again, again, again… Just to say something positive: the light choreography is well done.
    Poor staging, poor songs. The story and the actors are not catching you for a minute. You don’t get any feeling to the things which are happening on the stage. Every time I’m asking myself what’s going on there on the stage. Oh, well….they say there are two love stories happening there. Ok, yes, here are two couples moving around there .. but feelings, love? Playing with enthusiasm? No….no chance to see something which is going in this direction.
    Doesnt mean, the actors are not good. The perfomens is well done and I think west end standart.
    If you wanna compare (only if you wanna…) — Even the opening number of “South pacific” is more exiting then the whole musical and the whole 02:45 hours…
    The most disappointing show I saw for a long time on west end. I think with the thinking and the atmosphere of the pacific, the technology which is used in these times for a show (like “Rebecca” or “Ghost”) you can do much, much more then you will see there on this stage….as well wth the songs and the music…
    But most importend….. Finally you’re leaving the theater and all the songs are leaving your mind and memories as well. …ahm…What is the meaning of a musical and / or amusical comedy btw….??…..

  4. Geoff says:

    Good actors and singing terrible music, and show. Urinating on stage is just one of the horrors of a show so boring the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbour got cheered,

    Tim Rice fails to deliver at all its tried, predictable, boring trite and very dated.

    • Olaf says:

      I can’t argue with you not liking the show, as that is a matter of taste. But calling (faked) urinating on stage” a horror” is just plain silly, considering what else happens in theatre all the time: in “Saved” a baby is stoned to death, in “The Duchess of Malfi” a woman is strangled at excruciating length, in “King Lear” a man has his eyes plucked out, and for those who do not think those any of this is horrific enough, there’s always “Shopping and Fucking” or “Blasted”…

  5. Olaf says:

    As usual Variety gets it wrong with this oh so typical by-the-numbers review; the musical, although certainly not perfect, shows an intelligence and integrity in its writing of music, book and lyrics that goes far beyond the usual Broadway or West End fare. Here at last is a musical that is ambitious enough to adapt a serious literary work instead of a fluffy film comedy or children’s book and with its blunt language and unblinking depiction of military life and its miseries is clearly aimed at thinking adults. (For that reason alone it would never have been produced on Broadway nowadays.) It aims high and while it may not always succeed, it displays an artistic daring that is very rare in commercial musical theatre and should be respected.But then what can one expect from a publication that in the end judges the artistic quality of any theatrical enterprise by its Commercial, i.e. Broadway prospects?

    • celia says:

      I totally disagree with the review. I loved the show, excellent performances all rod with an exceptional male ensemble. The music was original and memorable with stunning vocal arrangements. Choreography was clever and effective as was the lighting, particularly in the pearl harbour bombing scene. I will definitely be returning

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